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C2BE Celebrates the Cooperative Heavyweight Terry Lewis

When I was growing up, my community was all about changing the world. I was a “red diaper baby” in a cooperative community. I was a child of the enlightenment, so I understood the notion of “treating the other as a person.” I wanted to be a nuclear physicist. In science, everything was about finding the answer to a problem. When I discovered the social sciences, I realized that I liked exploring questions a lot more than I liked finding answers. I decided I wanted to be a sociologist.

I got married in the summer of my sophomore year of college. When my husband went to grad school in sociology, I had a choice to make. I could go on to grad school in sociology myself, which he would have found a challenge, or I could take a different direction. It had been growing on me that being an academic would make changing the world a real uphill climb. I recognized I would find success if I could be part of some system that could change the world more directly. I didn’t want to be a lawyer, but I wanted to use the law -- change the law -- to change the world.

I was a woman in times that it was not easy to be a woman in the world and have a voice -- a place at the table. I also had a child, and my child was my gamechanger. I went back to school -- law school -- when my son Seth was two. I was determined to become a legal scholar.

The year I matriculated at the University of Michigan was the first year an incoming class had very many women. My incoming class was 30% women. The director of the law library was the welcoming speaker for our incoming class, as he had been for many years. He was regarded as quite comic. I can remember his welcoming speech. It was so sexist that the silence among the women in the room was deafening. The library director never spoke at such an event again.

In my first year Property course, it was the habit of the professor to move student by student down each row asking questions. One day, he wanted to make a point that Black people moving into a neighborhood lowered property values.Changing his methodology for asking questions, he skipped directly to the next woman in the row -- me. I must have surprised him mightily when, instead of being putty in his hands, I gave an economic exposition on why prejudice among white people, which reduced the market for property in integrated neighborhoods to about 15% of the market and, on top of that, to a far less affluent group of potential buyers, was the cause of an inevitable drop in sales prices, rather than anything inherent in the people who were moving in.

That professor never called on me again.

Third Wave Feminism was just in its infancy. It was typical in class for men to use sports analogies to discuss course material, so my women friends and I decided that we would use kitchen analogies to discuss that same course material. Those men never got it. They could not understand our references, but we were expected to understand theirs.

That's the world I became an adult in.

So, what's the secret to being a successful woman? Mary Catherine Bateson wrote the book Composing a Life. Her theory was that women, because of prejudice and because of the constraints place on them in navigating a family life, have a limited set of choices at any given moment. It is not so easy for women to choose a life goal and pursue it come hell or high water. But if a woman chooses well for herself among the choices that are made available at any given moment, she might just end up with an unforeseen but ultimately successful and satisfying life. So it has been for me.

I am lucky to have had and to have made choices that allow me to help make real change in the world. And I will continue to make choices that keep me engaged in changing the world for as long as I can. My lovely and fulfilling role at C2BE is very much part of that.

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