Community activist Vera “Mike” Michelson devoted her life to fighting for social justice and bridging racial and economic divides while putting her progressive political beliefs into practice with street-level pragmatism. Paul Grondahl, Director of the New York State Writers Institute, and contributor to the Times Union visited Mike in the hospital before she passed away earlier this year. Below are excerpts from the article he wrote about his friend, “A lifetime devoted to the fight for social justice” published in the Times Union on March 13, 2019.
“Mike,” as friends called her, was a retired state employee, white and Jewish, whose grandparents and parents fled Nazi Germany. She could have lived comfortably in the suburbs on her state pension, but instead she stayed rooted for 30 years in the predominantly African American neighborhood of West Hill, which struggles against the city’s highest rates of poverty, crime and gun violence.
“She had such a deep and authentic connection to the people in the black community that made her beloved as a friend, a mentor, and neighborhood organizer,” said Barbara Smith, a black activist and feminist author and editor. “What made Mike unique was that she lived her beliefs thoroughly and fully, far more than just a political ideology.” She never married and did not have children of her own, but Michelson helped out the neighborhood kids in ways large and small. She taught them to believe in themselves.
Mike’s activism started at a young age and continued throughout her life. “She’s always been a rebel,” said her younger brother David Michelson. She was involved with many social justice groups throughout her life including the Capital District Coalition Against Apartheid and Racism throughout the 1980s and protesting the Ku Klux Klan in the early ‘90s when they planned a rally on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.
“For her, it was very simple. There was right and wrong, and she devoted her life to fighting injustice,” he said. She preferred to work behind the scenes, without seeking recognition. Day after day, when nobody was watching, she became the change she wanted to see in the world. You could find her on street corners beside makeshift memorials, embracing bereft family members and advocating for peace after gunshots claimed another life.
“She could always see the big picture and make connections between poverty, mass incarceration and the marginalized, and she was deeply committed to community building,” said Lisa Good, CEO, and Founder of Urban Grief. “Mike was a force to be reckoned with when it came to working toward ending gun violence.”
Urban Grief is a community-based organization that works to reduce violence and supports those in crisis with bereavement support. The organization breaks down the walls of isolation by connecting those suffering to caregivers offering resources and a support network. Founder Lisa Good created this award-winning model after personally experiencing the grief and loss that comes from violence. No one believed more in the work of Urban Grief than Mike. Before her passing in March 2019, she partnered with the Community Foundation to establish an endowed fund to permanently support Urban Grief using assets from her retirement fund. Her commitment to social justice will live on forever and in annual support for to help heal our community and fight for justice through the Vera Michelson Love, Energy and Growth Fund.