Talking with A champion of umpteen good causes

Name: Ken Jacobs
Age: 51
City: San Francisco
Occupation: U.C. Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education (labor specialist and program chair)


J.: You’re a 1984 U.C. Berkeley grad and have been in the Bay Area since 1981, with the exception of a few years in Washington, D.C., and El Salvador. Where did you grow up?

Ken Jacobs: I was brought up in a military family. My father was in the Air Force and we lived all around the U.S. and in Germany. My parents ended up in Fair Oaks, near Sacramento, which is where I went to high school.

Ken Jacobs

J.: How did living in Germany impact your Jewish upbringing?

KJ: We were in Frankfurt for three years and Heidelberg for one during the 1970s. We lived in Germany from the time I was 8 until I was 12. It was a pretty formative experience for me. My family and I would go to Friday night Shabbat services on base, and then Saturday morning services in German shuls with Holocaust survivors and their children. That period definitely had a strong impact on me. I had my bar mitzvah when we got back to the United States, in southern Illinois. I think all of this strongly shaped my worldview, which led me into the type of work I do.

J.: Has your Jewish background influenced the work you’re involved with now?

KJ: When I was in college and even after, I was very involved with issues regarding human rights in Central America. El Salvador was a huge issue at the time given the U.S. involvement and human rights violations. Hearing stories of Salvadoran refugees who came to the U.S. sounded a lot like my great grandmother’s story. She immigrated to New York after the Russian pogroms of 1905 and worked in a garment factory. The stories of how immigrants [from Eastern Europe] fled violence to live in the U.S. really resonated with me. That overall sense of social justice came out of my Jewish experience.

J.: So how did you get from running the human rights agency SHARE El Salvador to working 11 years at the Center for Labor Research and Education, a public service and outreach program at U.C. Berkeley?

KJ: After the end of the civil war in El Salvador in 1992, there were issues that were happening in California — like the rising anti-immigrant sentiment in the 1980s and the Newt Gingrich activities — that prompted me to switch over and work on domestic policy in the U.S. My work at CRE focuses on low-wage workers, labor standards and health policies.

J.: What are some of your successes?

KJ: The work we did in El Salvador with human rights violations and promoting a peaceful resolution to the conflict was important, and I was at the signing of the Salvadoran peace accords. A lot of people did their part, but I think the most important work was the accomplishments by the Salvadorans themselves.

At the Labor Center, I think there is a lot of important work that is being done, especially local labor standards policy. I worked on San Francisco’s universal health care program, which has been a major success. And I think the work we’ve done looking at minimum and living-wage laws has influenced policy makers.

J.: Are Jews prone to get involved in this kind of work?

KJ: During my experience in the ’80s, a lot of Salvadorans would ask me why there were so many Jews involved in this movement because there is not a big Jewish population in El Salvador. But people who went through my kinds of experiences growing up saw the connection — there were quite a few of us — and I think it’s still true for the work I’m doing today.

J.: You lived in Germany for four years, so do you speak German?

KJ: No. We lived on military bases at a time when it was not a policy to teach the kids German, which was a real lost opportunity.

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Abra Cohen