Kathleen Lammers and 1980’s San Francisco

by on September 4, 2018

The author with Kathleen Lammers, early 1980's

Remembering a Champion for SF’s Seniors

Kathleen Lammers should have celebrated her 71st birthday on September 5. But the champion for seniors had her life cut short by cancer in 1995, years before her first Social Security check.  I was fortunate to work with Kathleen, and I know her commitment to social justice for seniors has not been forgotten.

1980’s San Francisco

I began working with Kathleen in the summer of 1980 when she was Director of the San Francisco Gray Panthers. I was working that summer as an intern at both the Tenderloin Housing Clinic which we had founded that February and at Legal Assistance for the Elderly (LAE), which was then down the hall from the Gray Panthers at 944 Market Street.

Summer 1980 was a hotbed of grassroots activism in San Francisco. The Gray Panthers were at the heart of the leading struggles. Lammers, her organizing director Jim Shoch, and the group’s members were battling against luxury hotels planned for the Tenderloin, fighting to stop residential hotel conversions, and dealing with eviction threats at the Dalt and Abigail (then Glenburn) hotels. Plus there were fights against MUNI fare hikes and for legislation to strengthen the city’s recently passed and very weak rent control law.

LAE’s legal activities dovetailed with the Gray Panthers actions so I found myself spending a lot of time working with Lammers and Shoch. This led me to write my first press release.

My first try was not very good. Nor was my second or third tries. Kathleen was completely busy and could have quickly written the press release herself but she took the time to edit and give feedback on each version of what I gave her ( in those pre-computer days we didn’t have the luxury of simply changing words on a document, we had to type entirely new documents from scratch).

By the time we were done, I had written a decent press release for a tenant protest that was ultimately cancelled. More importantly,  I had learned the skill of writing press releases because Kathleen Lammers invested her time in building my skill set.

She taught me a valuable lesson: veteran activists need to invest time in training newcomers rather than always doing things themselves because it’s faster.

Age and Youth in Action

The 1980’s SF Gray Panthers were filled with lifelong activists. Lammers’ job was to keep this energetic group focused, and to raise the money that the organization needed to survive.

To help with the latter, Kathleen asked me to join the Gray Panthers Board. I was only 24 at the time but “Age and Youth in Action” was the group’s motto and I qualified as a youth. I was not the youngest person involved with the group by any means; a precocious young boy named Alex Clemens (now with Lighthouse Public Affairs) regularly hung around the Gray Panther offices as his grandmother Helen Sobell was involved with the group.

Soon after my summer with LAE and the Gray Panthers, all of the nonprofit organizations at 944 Market were evicted. The Gray Panthers moved to New College Law School’s office at 50 Fell Street, where the Tenderloin Housing Clinic was running its citywide eviction defense offices (now the Eviction Defense Collaborative).

Her proximity to law students intensified Kathleen’s internal debate over whether she should go to law school. She was considering law school from the time we first met, and worried that being in her 30’s she was too old to start.  But she had bold plans for how she could use her law degree to help seniors and finally decided to seek a law degree. In 1985 she left the Gray Panthers to enter Hastings Law School.

Kathleen graduated Hastings in 1988. Upon passing the bar became the Director and chief attorney for the California Long Term Care League. She was doing exactly what she hoped to do, bringing her commitment to social justice for seniors to her new organization.

We didn’t have email or Facebook in those days and Kathleen and I did not stay in close touch. I recall running into her and learning that she had cancer. Unfortunately, the cancer spread quickly and she died only two years after her diagnosis.

The National Senior Citizens Law Center has a Kathleen Lammers Advocacy Award. But she should also be remembered for the critical role she played in connecting the power of senior activists to the tenant, housing and transportation struggles that shaped the rapidly gentrifying 1980’s San Francisco.

I’m sure all longtime activists have a person like Kathleen Lammers in their life, someone who took the time to improve a young person’s skills and who saw value in bringing new people into a cause. We should all think of that person while celebrating Kathleen Lammers legacy on what should have been her 71st birthday.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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