A passionate advocate for social justice. An inspirational speaker and leader. And a pioneer in the advancement of services for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.
That’s how friends and colleagues remember Felice Yeskel, the founder of the University of Massachusetts’ Stonewall Center. Yeskel, who also taught in the UMass Social Justice Education Program, died last Tuesday, Jan. 11, at the age of 57, after a two-year battle with cancer, according to a University release.
“Felice was an incredible person with so many interests, talents and skills,” Pat Griffin, a friend, former colleague and professor emerita in the Social Justice Education program, wrote in an e-mail to the Massachusetts Daily Collegian late last week. “She was a leader on addressing [a] variety of social issues, particularly addressing classism and heterosexism. In addition, she had a wide circle of close friends who cherished her and will miss her greatly.
“I learned so much from working with Felice on campus social issues, and she did her work with such grace, humor and understanding,” continued Griffin. “She could challenge you to live up to your best self and when you did, it was a wonderful feeling. It is always a tragedy when someone dies before their time, especially when that person is such a leader and guiding light like Felice.”
In 1985, Yeskel created the Stonewall Center to provide support to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. At the time, it was only the third kind of center on a college campus in the country, Genny Beemyn, the current director of the center, wrote in an e-mail to the Collegian.
“Now there are more than 150,” Beemyn wrote.
“The programs and services that these centers provide are largely modeled on the pioneering work that Felice did in developing the Stonewall Center,” added Beemyn. “Her role in creating the field of LGBT Student Services was tremendous.”
Mitch Boucher, who worked with Yeskel at the Stonewall Center, said that she was a courageous person who advocated for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights during a time in which it was just difficult for a person to be openly gay.
“She set up a fund to help students whose parents cut off their financial support because they came out as gay or lesbian,” Boucher wrote of Yeskel in an e-mail. “Felice never stopped learning.”
In addition to fighting for gay rights, Yeskel was also a strong advocate for the defeat of classism, a perceived stigma that is said to discriminate on the basis of social status. Along with Jennifer Ladd, Yeskel co-founded Class Action, a non-profit organization that aims to dissolve classism, in 2004.
“She was powerful, insightful, truth-telling, strong … committed to making connections across all kinds of barriers,” Ladd said of Yeskel during a phone interview last week. “She was committed to equity of all kinds.”
“Her vision was one of a loving society,” Ladd added.
Additionally, Ladd provided the Collegian with a copy of a tribute she wrote for Yeskel.
In the tribute, she wrote that Yeskel “challenged sexism, anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia and heterosexism, class and classism, and all forms of oppression.
“She touched thousands of people’s lives with her speaking, teaching, listening, facilitating, writing, and living,” Ladd wrote. “She had a remarkable gift of presence on large groups and was able to inspire and move people to examine their own lives and commit to making this a more just world.”
Ladd noted that Yeskel was a woman of great humor who cared deeply about her family.
“Felice was curious and made a life of asking difficult questions with others in deep conversation, inquiry and action,” Ladd wrote. “This curiosity and commitment to the truth and self awareness is what drew me to her and kept us connected.
“Felice and I had our struggles but we also shared a deep desire to cross personal and societal class barriers and in doing so we shared very vulnerable experiences and tender connections,” Ladd continued.
Ladd noted that Yeskel spent much of the last two years focusing on healing and sharing love. She wrote that she feels Yeskel’s illness “… catalyzed and cohered an already existing network, near and far, into a true community of love that was shared not only with Felice but with each other.
“She was and is a great, complex, and beautiful spirit,” Ladd concluded. “I deeply miss her.”
A funeral service was held for Yeskel last week at the Jewish Community of Amherst, according to the University release.
The release also states that Yeskel leaves behind her partner, Felicia Mednick, and her daughter, Shira.
William Perkins can be reached at [email protected]