Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - May 3, 2013

Judith Steiner

Working for grassroots change

by Elena Kadvany

Judith Steiner has never been one to shy from a challenge.

In fact, she's welcomed them.

From teaching English in Vienna, Austria, to choosing a controversial list of candidates for the Palo Alto High School International Festival panel to converting six houses in East Palo Alto into homes for young single mothers on welfare, her trajectory has been far from dull. She has always sought to challenge and change the status quo.

Steiner, also one of this year's Avenidas Lifetimes of Achievement honorees, was born in Ohio to a conservative family whose opinions often clashed with hers.

"We always had arguments," Steiner recalled. "I used to get sent away from the dining room table."

After her father's job moved the family to western Pennsylvania, they took a road trip to California that Steiner never forgot. She stayed in Pennsylvania for college, attending Bucknell University, but left immediately afterward.

"I graduated on Saturday and left for San Francisco on Sunday," she said.

Steiner worked a few "mindless jobs" before teaching social studies at a San Francisco middle school. She didn't feel she was cut out for teaching, but interacting with faculty got her interested in politics and activism. She went to her first demonstration in 1964 with other teachers, protesting the racist hiring practices of Cadillac car dealers on Van Ness Avenue's auto row.

Always eager for a challenge, Steiner decided to leave San Francisco to travel in Europe alone, heading to Scandinavia, Munich and Vienna, where she met her husband, Hans. The two married in 1967 and lived in Vienna until Hans, a psychiatry student, finished medical school in 1973. During that time, she taught English at the United Nations.

Hans was eventually offered a job at Stanford University, which brought the couple to Palo Alto. They purchased a house together with Steiner's childhood friend and her husband, living together in a commune-like way that was common in the 1970s.

After having three children, Steiner considered applying to Stanford Law School or teaching again, but wanted to do more.

"A friend who was single and in her late 50s at the time was looking for a place she could afford to live when she retired," Steiner said. "She wanted to live in a community of some kind, and she heard about this group in Marin called Innovative Housing."

It turned out Innovative Housing was looking to expand, so in 1985 Steiner took the reins and founded Innovative Housing on the Peninsula. Innovative Housing helped low-income people interested in shared living to find and rent homes. The nonprofit would sign the lease for interested participants and then provide workshops, which Steiner often led, on how to live together and mediate problems.

Homelessness was also a major issue at the time, Steiner said, and she wanted to find a way to help with that.

"We thought that two groups of people that could live in shared living advantageously would be low-income elderly and single mothers who were on welfare. It would be more affordable for them."

Steiner got a grant from the Palo Alto Community Fund to start a shared-living house in Palo Alto. The fund's largest grant to date had been about $150 given to local boy scouts. The Packard Foundation also provided a grant, the first they had given for housing. Steiner eventually got enough funding for 30 houses.

"In the '60s, people lived together because they were war resisters or had a religious connection," she said. "Instead, it became just people who wanted to live together for community and affordability."

But as it turned out, running a cohousing nonprofit was a challenge too expensive to maintain.

"It was just too hard. It wasn't like you could make one grant and just fix things. It was ongoing," Steiner said. Innovative Housing eventually changed owners.

So she moved onto the next challenge: transforming a struggling local nonprofit with eight years of deficit, Hidden Villa, into a successful community staple. She served as Hidden Villa's executive director for 10 years, from 1994 to 2004.

Steiner was also involved with her children's schools, serving on Jordan Middle School's human relations committee and volunteering at the PTA.

Her most memorable involvement at Paly was in the late 1980s, when she suggested a panel for the high school's International Festival that included a Jewish American woman who was married to a Palestinian, a Syrian man who wanted to talk about why Libyans liked Muammar Gaddafi, and an Israel/Palestine expert from Stanford. All of them were parents of students.

"One member in my committee said, 'We can't have these speakers.'"

I said, "I'm not going to pull the names, it's a freedom of speech issue."

Paly ended up hosting the speakers.

Steiner said that many of her aspirations — promoting diversity at her children's schools, striving to reduce homelessness by founding Innovative Housing, doing fundraising for local organizations such as the East Palo Alto Kids Foundation — harken back to a quote, famously uttered by then-senator Barry Goldwater, R-Arizona, after he voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964: "You can't legislate morality."

"No, you can't," Steiner said. "But you can make change. And sometimes it takes the laws to be passed first for the people to change, but mostly it takes the people to change to get the laws passed. So that's when I thought, 'The real thing isn't politics so much — the real thing is getting grassroots organizations whose job it is to change people's minds and behavior.'"

Steiner's current grassroots efforts are focused on Acterra, a Palo Alto environmental and education nonprofit for which she serves as board president.

"The organization's whole purpose is to find ways to help people learn about the importance of preserving the environment and energy efficiency and so forth — and that they can change their thinking and their behavior," she said. "That's really crucial."

Editorial Assistant Elena Kadvany can be emailed at ekadvany@paweekly.com.

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