When Nancy Gewirtz died in 2004 after her courageous and graceful battle with cancer, she was widely and appropriately known by a title the Fund for Community Progress had aptly bestowed upon her in 1997–“A Voice for the Voiceless.” Indeed, Dr. Gewirtz’s entire life was marked by her tireless efforts on behalf of the poor, the exploited, the defenseless, and the marginalized.
Ever since she completed her graduate studies, which included a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Connecticut and a Master of Social Work from the State University of New York at Buffalo, Dr. Gewirtz continually wrote, spoke, and advocated in classrooms, at demonstrations, and in legislative halls to improve the lot of poor people who, as she taught, were not only in great need, but were so often hidden from public view.
Of special concern to Dr. Gewirtz were the children born into desperate conditions of squalor and deprivation. She was a partner with Rhode Island Kids Count and co founded the Rhode Island Campaign to Eliminate Childhood Poverty, an organization she chaired for seven years. Nancy’s activities on behalf of children led her to receive the Outstanding Service and Advocate for Children Award from the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Though she was raised in the suburbs of Boston, where she learned principles of social justice and equality from her family that she would always carry with her, it was Rhode Island’s good fortune that she spent her adult life here as a much admired and beloved professor of social policy and social work at Rhode Island College. In 1998, she co founded The Poverty Institute within the Rhode Island College School for Social Work, an organization which became, prior to Nancy’s death, the premier resource in this state for collecting, collating and explaining information about poverty and income disparity.
Nancy’s legacy was her passionate commitment to translate poverty’s deplorable statistics and numbers into comprehensible critiques and policy declarations that let the wider community know it was real people who were suffering physically and spiritually as a result of existing economic and legal arrangements. Nancy was fond of quoting a fellow scholar and activist, the historian Howard Zinn, who had poignantly observed: “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”
A rigorous scholar, Nancy was anything but neutral in her demands that poverty and its disastrous consequences be eliminated and that all people be treated fairly and justly. Her work was always supported by her husband, Henry, and her children, Aaron and Rebekah, who herself now serves on the Board of The Poverty Institute. Fortunately, Nancy’s example and vision of combining exceptional scholarship with an active engagement in both traditional and non traditional politics is carried on by her extended family of friends and colleagues at The Poverty Institute and elsewhere.
–Judge Stephen J. Fortunato, Jr.