My friend Jan Perry
A bullet through the kitchen window.
The parents of my good friend, Jan Perry, had purchased land in Woodmere, just outside of Cleveland. Well, they didn’t buy it. They couldn’t because they were black. Instead, they asked a black man who looked white to buy it. An uncle and cousins dug the foundation, laid the bricks, built the house.
Jan’s grandmother cleaned the houses. His uncle was lynched for “reckless gaze”. A great-aunt married a former slave; as he was already an elderly man, the family always spoke in low voices in his presence. Jan’s grandmother told her that they would never take her to the South because she would not know “how to act”. Then one day a bullet went through the kitchen window.
Jan’s mother, a member of the segregated musicians’ union, played the organ on a skating rink; his father unloaded freight cars. Both emphasized the importance of education – getting out of trouble as they say. Jan’s father fought in the European Theater in World War II and then went to college on GI Bill benefits. He became a barrister and practiced law with Louis and Carl Stokes. He and Jan’s mother became community activists.
Jan remembers going to meeting after meeting as a young girl, listening to adults talk about fair housing, voter registration, civil rights, and all kinds of community issues. Times have changed: his father was elected mayor of Woodmere, and his mother was also later elected mayor. Louis Stokes served in Congress for thirty years. Carl Stokes became the first African-American mayor of a major American city, Cleveland. Jan proudly remembers her mother writing the grant application to cover open sewers in the predominantly black neighborhood of Woodmere. His parents, says Jan, “were the biggest influence on me because of their tenacity and drive to fiercely pursue the goals of achieving an education for themselves and their children and for the children of other families.”
Jan’s life took a new turn when she enrolled in a theology course at university which introduced her to Judaism. Saying she was “always a spiritual person”, she found the principles and ethics of Judaism to be “fundamental to how we should live, how to treat others, how to lead a meaningful life”. It was, she says, “consistent with everything my parents had taught me.” She says she read and thought a lot and it became clear that becoming Jewish by choice was “the right path” for her. She still studies Torah once a week with a group of women. Summing up her Jewish identity, “This is who I am,” she says.
She still studies Torah once a week with a group of women. Summing up her Jewish identity, “This is who I am,” she says.
It is not surprising, in this context, that Jan eventually entered politics, serving on the Los Angeles City Council for twelve years, representing Downtown, Skid Row, South Los Angeles and Little Tokyo, and following for five years as Managing Director of the Los Angeles Department of Economic Development and Workforce. Like her parents, she says, “building a better life” was on her agenda. She has worked with nonprofit housing developers to create thousands of affordable housing units; was an early advocate and board member of the Exposition Line; created green spaces and jobs in disadvantaged neighborhoods; worked to improve health outcomes by limiting fast food restaurants in his district; and even created two wetlands – including one the city council later named the Jan Perry Wetlands – to cool the community in the summer and be an inviting space year-round. For each project, she made sure there was a community benefits requirement to train and hire people from zip codes with lower median incomes.
But “most importantly,” says Jan, she learned “to work constructively” with people she disagreed with, “to listen to them and find solutions with them whenever possible. “. “But,” she adds, “you can’t be stupid.” Drawing an analogy between the neighborhood she once lived in and the neighborhood Israel lives in, she says people can learn to live together, but it is the actions of those who have been hostile, not the words, that are important.
Jan is my friend and is running for Congress in California’s 37th congressional district. I hope she will win.
Greg Smith is president of the Westwood Kehilla Synagogue, to which Jan Perry is affiliated.