Reader’s Forum — Lowell Ward, Diana Dakey, Harriet Hoffman, Maureen Albanese and Helen Abel


The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen



 I love the book, it’s brilliantly written.  When I’m reading it I feel like I’m there among the characters, and part of the 20180529_100153conversation.  The book is hard to put down to because of the adventure and intrigue that comes with a story as powerful as Mary Bowser’s is. I also find it fascinating how the Willy Lynch syndrome had already kick in. The self-hatred, envy and jealousy we were taught to have for each other ,way back when, let’s replace it with self-esteem, decent, and love. Mary Bowser is my HEROINE.”

Lowell Ward is an activist with the Massachusetts Coalition of Independent Voters.



Author, Lois Leveen transported me back to the Civil War era in The Secrets if Mary Bowser.

Although it is fact that its main characters lived, that there were spies for the Union, that the underground railroad existed, that a colored society existed in Philadelphia, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAthere is limited record of what it actually was like for people who lived during these trying times. It takes the research and imagination of a writer to create the realistic setting and to develop the characters of the time, masterfully done by Lois Leveen.

Through the eyes of our heroine, Mary Bowser, we learn of the overt and subtle prejudice against colored freed people, as well as the social order among freed (e.g., to sew for charity) and enslaved.

A takeaway from the novel was that one could be sustained in one’s convictions by taking the long view that one’s efforts could eventually make lives better for others (e.g., Mary’s belief that she had a mission in life), embodied by Mary, Wilson, Bet and others, both white and colored. Also, the personal dignity of Mary, who envisioned a life of greater importance for herself than being an accessory to her first beau.  The novel also shows us the compassion of the individual for others, a counterweight to the prevailing inhuman treatment of slaves at the time.”

Diana Dakey lives in Pennsylvania and supports a number of good-government groups.




I loved Mary Bowser, especially her contrariness.  She lived a life that made no separation between the personal and political. She was ruthless and astute in her analyses of the people and events taking place around her. And of course she had enormous courage.  I wish I’d known her.”

Harriet Hoffman is a consultant specializing in grant writing and helping people maximize their Medicare and social security benefits.  She is an activist with and the New York City Independence Clubs. She is also active with the All Stars Project’s Committee for Independent Community Action.



I had no idea who Mary Bowser was as we Americans are not good at teaching our history certainly not slave history. I want to thank Lois Leveen for giving me a history lesson I didn’t know I really needed.  In reading the book I was awestruck who by a slave who risked everything to get justice for her people.  They say someMaureen Albanese people are born great and other have greatness thrust upon them in Mary Bowser’s case it is both.  Although she was granted freedom and was able to be educated she wasn’t really free.  She realized to be free she would have to take matters in her own hand using a life of lessons learned against those who would enslave her people.  Her foes supposed smarts show they were not the masters of the universe they thought they were.  They never realized that Mary who toiled as a drudge in their midst was the one who ultimately brought them down.  Slavery has not gone away or has the institutional racism that still permeates our society today.  This book should be required reading in every high school in America.  We need to know our history to come to grips with it and this book can help us do that.”

Maureen Albanese is an administrative assistant and activist. She lives in Manhattan.



I loved this book and read it in 3 days on Kindle. It is a page turner. This is a remarkable story and kudos to the author Lois Leveen for writing such a fascinating and meticulous account of a little known piece of history. Yes it depicts the difference in what racism looked like in the North and South during the era of the Civil War. One of the things that I found interesting was how the house slaves and plantation slaves were treated. Also Mary Bowser was lucky in that one of her masters, the daughter of the plantation was against slavery and helped her get educated and free. It also depicts some of Mary’s conflicts over how slavery was depicted. While it was awful, it wasn’t just people being beaten and hung on a tree which is the way it was portrayed in a lot of the political propaganda of the abolitionists. And since this is historical fiction we don’t know the extent to which Mary might have been abused physically.

She also had a gift of a photographic memory and decided to use that to help end slavery and be a spy.

IMG_7132One of the most astonishing parts of the book for me was how she extended the Civil War by withholding particular information so that slavery would become a main issue for Lincoln and not just preservation of the Union. Was this part true? A possible question for the author.

She was obviously very smart and able to evade detection. However the environment that she was in, i.e. when she lived in Jefferson Davis’s house, shows the level of racism where a black woman slave in particular would never be seen capable of reading, writing or thinking, and definitely not smart enough to be a spy. So she was able to use that to work in her favor. They tried to accuse a white man. And the person who guessed part of her secret was another female slave that she worked with.

As someone who is an activist in the independent political movement it gives the word “perseverance” new meaning. I look forward to other books by this author.”

Helen Abel is a political activist with Independent Voice in California and on staff of Life Performance Coaching in San Francisco.


Politics for the People

Conference Call

With Author Lois Leveen

Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

Join us and Explore

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

641-715-3605 and passcode 767775#



Rakeen Dow and Harriet Hoffman–Reader’s Forum on $2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America


On Two Dollars a Day is a journey, a dive of a thousand leagues into the abyss of poverty, a candid look at being poor in America.  In addition to giving a graphic illustration of what is to be at the bottom of the barrel of poverty, it shines an intense light on our political system and how it facilitates the opportunities for the powers that be to be able to implement policies that are oppressive and create further damage to the members of society who are most in need of the government’s assistance.

Rakeen Dow is an activist with the All Stars Project’s Committee for Independent Community Action, founded by Dr. Lenora Fulani. Rakeen is a co-founder of Live Poet’s Society NYC performance ensemble.



When I began reading the introduction to this book my first reaction was Oh, no, I can’t handle another upsetting, depressing read.  My second reaction was one of fury.  Of course I must read it, so I can accumulate even more facts with which to fight against the moral outrage that is America’s treatment of the poor.  When I was a young mother, I couldn’t ever imagine not having food to give to my  children.  As an activist, I joined the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and we made some gains.  Later I worked in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society antipoverty programs, where the gains were only temporary.  For many years I have been supporting the building of an independent political movement, and now I am part of the fightback against the New York City plan to privatize public housing where 600,000 mostly poor people live.  But back in the 1960’s and 70s I would not have anticipated that hunger in this country would emerge as yet another dire outcome of the extreme income inequality supported and tolerated over many years by the politicians of both political parties.  Unfortunately the lack of food and decent housing is not confined only to the communities and families described in this book.  In my neighborhood on the upper west side of Manhattan, homelessness is and has been evident for years, but widespread hunger is now everywhere.  Whatever our political differences, we are all humans in an ever growing more inhumane world and we must take on this fight.

Harriet Hoffman is a consultant specializing in grant writing and helping people maximize their Medicare and social security benefits.  She is the coordinator of the popular monthly independent volunteer gathering, Talkin’ Independence, a program of and the New York City Independence Clubs. She is also active with the All Stars Project’s Committee for Independent Community Action.

Please Join the Politics for the People Conference Call

With Kathyrn Edin

Author with H. Luke Shaefer of

$2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America

Sunday, December 3rd at 7 pm EST

Call In and Join the Conversation

641-715-3605 and passcode 767775#



Reader’s Forum–Harriet Hoffman


A Novel by Ellen Feldman


Harriet Hoffman at an informational picket protesting the privatization and undermining of public housing in NYC.

Margaret Sanger was not just a fighter for access to birth control and the founder of Planned Parenthood.  She was a political maverick who defied all kinds of cultural norms at great personal cost and was attacked as much for her personal lifestyle decisions as for the courageous campaign she led to provide birth control information for poor women.  As a political activist and mother of two children, I deeply felt the emotional pain and the social cost of her refusal to abide by the rules of the time, especially her decision to reject the expectations of traditional motherhood.

Actually universal access to birth control information took a very long time to be accepted in the U.S.  Before the sexual revolution in the mid-1960s there was little talk about birth control.  Those of us who were adolescents in the late fifties and early sixties can certainly remember what that was like.  “Nice” girls didn’t have sex and certainly didn’t tell anyone if they did; abortions were illegal until 1973 when Roe vs. Wade was decided; and you usually had to either get married or put your child up for adoption if you got pregnant.  In fact sex education in schools was practically nonexistent until about 20 years ago.

Sadly, this is a very timely book.  It is one hundred years since Margaret Sanger and her sister Ethel Byrne, and Fania Mindell opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S. in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, NY, and today Planned Parenthood is under serious attack. Sanger chose Brownsville for her clinic because it was home to poor women whose lives and health were being negatively impacted by their lack of knowledge and access to birth control. While the attacks on Planned Parenthood today are focused on abortion, most people are unaware that Planned Parenthood is the largest provider of low cost health care and birth control in the U.S.  An estimated one in five women in the U.S. today has visited a Planned Parenthood health center at least once in her life.  Without Planned Parenthood it is young and low income women and men who will likely be the ones to lose needed health services.

Harriet Hoffman is a consultant specializing in grant writing and helping people maximize their Medicare and social security benefits.  She is the coordinator of the popular monthly independent volunteer gathering, Talkin’ Independence, a program of and the New York City Independence Clubs.



Readers’ Forum–Harriet Hoffman and Natesha Oliver

Harriet Hoffman


Harriet Hoffman (r) with Edith Bargoma (c) and June Hirsh at the Anti-Corruption Awards this month.

As I began reading Evicted my first thought was – Wow, I didn’t realize that evictions are part of a growing industry, that there is money to be made from evicting people from their homes.  I appreciated that the Matthew Desmond didn’t assign blame either to the families or the individual landlords or those who are paid to dump the belongings onto the sidewalks (who are in some cases evictees themselves), or those who operate the storage units (where there are exorbitant fees to be paid when someone wants to reclaim their belongings).  I was shocked to read that in Milwaukee the difference between the rent for a poorly maintained apartment in a low income neighborhood and the rent paid for a “nice” apartment in a middle class neighborhood, is only a couple of hundred dollars a month.  Except that the poor don’t have access to those nicer apartments.  And, I am in awe of the fortitude of the families depicted so compassionately in this book, who ask for so little, starting over again and again, moving from hope to hopelessness, from housing court to eviction, homeless shelter to apartment, and back around again.

I live in New York City where 64,464 people are now living in shelters, including 23,929 homeless children, and thousands more on the streets.  I live just steps away from a public housing complex where nearly 5,000 people live in 2,000 apartments in 17 buildings.  It is one of dozens of public housing sites in this city in which over half a million people have had a chance, for many years, to have stable homes.  But the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) has begun selling its buildings, parking lots and playground spaces to private developers who will put up new buildings that the poor cannot afford to live in.  Evictions have already begun, and surely NYCHA’s callous “Next Generation” plan, if carried out, will eventually destroy public housing and will leave many more thousands of men, women and children stranded.

I am really angry about this.  I am a member of the Committee for Independent Political Action, which, under the leadership of Dr. Lenora Fulani, is organizing tenants and others to fight back.  The City doesn’t have to take this route, but, as in Milwaukee and elsewhere, there is little political will among the politicians to support decent housing for the poor.  As Matthew Desmond asserts in this wonderful book, it would be less expensive to provide a housing voucher for every low income family in America than it is to maintain homeless shelters and the apparatus that evicts people from their homes.

I know that most ordinary New Yorkers strongly oppose NYCHA’s plan.  And this is a stark example of what happens when we the people have no opportunity to impact public policy.  That’s why I have also worked for many years with the NYC Independence Clubs and, which are fighting to restore a democratic decision-making process to our country.  At our popular Talkin’ Independence events, which I coordinate, people from every walk of life are talking about why it is so important for the people, not the political parties, to have the power to decide about housing and other critical issues.

Harriet Hoffman is a consultant specializing in grant writing and helping people maximize their Medicare and social security benefits.  She is the coordinator of the popular monthly independent volunteer gathering, Talkin’ Independence, a program of and the New York City Independence Clubs


Natesha Oliver

Natesha Oliver (r) with Cathy Stewart and Politics for the People member, Cheryl White (l)

Natesha Oliver (l) with Cathy Stewart and Politics for the People member, Cheryl White (r) National Conference of Independents, NYC, March 2015


It is a challenge for Me to put in words My thoughts on Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted. I have a lot of things going through My mind, The attitudes of the Landlords and how they lived lavished lives while making money off the desperation of others. They may not have contributed to the onset of their tenants conditions yet they sure as hell didn’t do anything to alleviate their tenants’ condition even when it came to maintaining their property. And how they would knowingly watch the property deteriorate and still allow people to live in their squalor, and this is where I am most conflicted because could the Landlords have prevented the deterioration, I don’t know, this truly bothers Me the most.

What the children have to endure when living like that is nothing short of disturbing and when they act out evictions were cold and swift, another confliction because who wants to pay for damage caused by someone else’s child.

Knowing that these properties were purchased with the intent to house impoverished people for profit is truly disturbing.

For the sake of time and sanity I will end with this quote by Matthew Desmond:

“This degree of inequality, this withdrawal of opportunity, this cold denial of basic needs, this endorsement of pointless suffering—by no American value is this situation justified. No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become”.

Natesha Oliver is the founder of MIST, Missouri Independents Stand Together. She lives in Kansas City.


Politics for the People Conference Call

With Matthew Desmond

Sunday, October 23rd at 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 641 715-3605

Access code 767775#


Reader’s Forum–Harriet Hoffman, Doug Balder and Carl Farmer

As part of our viewing and savoring The Notion of Family Together, several Politics for the People members are selecting a favorite photo and sharing their thoughts about that image.  This is our last installment on our way to our conference call with LaToya Ruby Frazier this evening at 7 pm EST (call in details at the end of this post). We will hear from Harriet Hoffman, Doug Balder and Carl Farmer.


Unless you’re from Braddock

The Notion Of Family by LaToya Ruby Frazier. Pg 104: UPMC Life-Changing Medicine, 2012

The Notion Of Family by LaToya Ruby Frazier. Pg 104: UPMC Life-Changing Medicine, 2012

I was a photographer in New York City from 1978-1988, during a period of budget deficits, high crime, boarded up buildings and poor city services.  What interested me a lot as a photographer was the solitariness of so many people I saw juxtaposed in various ways against the lonely streets of the communities in decline.  So I was immediately drawn to LaToya Ruby Frazier’s beautiful, emotional book chronicling her family’s three-generational relationship to the ultimate destruction of their city of Braddock, PA.

In 1980 I became the photo editor for the New York Alliance newspaper, covering the development of the New Alliance Party (the earliest forerunner of the NYC Independence Party) and a host of other community and cultural organizations, so I was on the scene photographing both the grassroots organizing activities and the many protests of that period.

When I saw this photograph of the sign, “UPMC Life Changing Medicine UNLESS YOU’RE FROM BRADDOCK” and the lone gentleman standing beside it, I thought immediately of the 1980 closing of Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital by then Mayor Ed Koch, and the huge protests that followed.  Mayor Koch ordered the hospital closed to fill a deficit in the city budget.  Sydenham was the first municipal hospital to allow African American doctors to bring in their own patients, and it had tremendous practical, political and emotional significance to the community and the Black doctors and nurses who worked there.

In response, the New Alliance Party started the Dump Koch movement, Dump Koch Buttonwith hundreds of people selling thousands of black and white Dump Koch buttons for $1 on the streets and subway cars all over the City.  Those little buttons became a symbol of a callous administration that put its self-interest ahead of the needs of poor people.  Institutions like UPMC in Braddock and Sydenham Hospital in Harlem can’t ever be replaced.

PS – Years later Ed Koch admitted that he was wrong to close Sydenham Hospital.

hoffman solo

Harriet Hoffman is a community organizer with the New York City Independence Clubs. She is the producer of the popular Talkin’ Independence series of monthly volunteer events.





The Notion Of Family by LaToya Ruby Frazier. Pg 102-103: UPMC Braddock Hospital and Holland Avenue Parking Lot, 2011

Working, poor, destitute
Steel, layoff, outsourced
Home, rundown, shell
Groceries, package store, food stamps
Hospital, clinic, disease
Job, unemployment, drugs
Three, two, one

IMG_0777Douglas Balder is an architect and on the Board of Directors of the All Stars Project.







‘River Water Valley

They built the mill

The people came

We built the houses shops churches

They built a Library

We built a community

They closed the mill

And We did nothing

The houses shops and churches were boarded up

And We did nothing

They closed the hospital and tore it down

We now have….

Rust Pollution Desolation

When will we ever learn’

My great grandfather emigrated from Germany and worked with the Scot Carnegie translating English to German for the German-speaking immigrant workers. None of my family lives in Western Pennsylvania now…..the cousins that worked the mills became steel erectors; the last spinster lived on an island in the Allegheny. Western Pennsylvania is tough and mountainous. Industry has depleted the natural resources. The coal has been mined and stripped. The people have been thrown away. LaToya Ruby Frazier’s monograph The Notion of Family shows life in a de-industrialized steel town populated by community characterized by colorblindness and structural racism. I have looked at the photographs of Family in three different ways: People, Buildings and Organizations.


Frazier Family – Grandma Ruby, Mom, La Toya and Pee Wee. Braddock Community The intimate family photos are of the Frazier women while the community photos are of people demonstrating against the hospital closure. 15: Grandma Ruby Smoking Pall Malls 24-25: Mom and Me in the Alleyway 26: Grandma Ruby Holding Her Babies 81: Sergeant Frazier 120: Grandma Ruby, Mom and Me 100: Grandma Ruby and UPMC Braddock Hospital on Braddock Avenue 101: Rally to Protest UPMC East ‘Grandma Ruby Holding Her Babies’ reinforces the importance of the Grandma in holding the family together and raising the grandchildren. Grandparents are usually more important than parents in defining social responsibility in us.


Domestic: housing and shops Institutional: mill and hospital 6: United States Steel Mon Valley Works Edgar Thomson Plant 21: Home on Braddock Avenue 38: Islay’s on Braddock Avenue 39: Bell’s Market on Braddock Avenue 51: Homes on Halket Street 71: Stamboli’s Poultry Market on Braddock Avenue 89: 1908 Eight Street Market on Talbot Avenue 102: UPMC Braddock Hospital and Holland Avenue Parking Lot 108: Fifth Street Tavern and UPMC Hospital on Braddock Avenue 118: Former Braddock Hospital Site 126: Home on Sixth Street and Washington Avenue The buildings form another family. Unfortunately, it is a family falling apart. Houses range from ivy covered partial shells to outdated quality stock in need of repair and maintenance.

The commercial sector is all boarded up. The demolition of the hospital is criminal. It is very depressing for me as I have spent the majority of my career designing and building hospitals and housing including repurposing existing buildings for both the private and public sectors.


Industrial – USS and BOC Healthcare – Braddock Hills Medicine Shoppe and Braddock Hospital 36: The Bottom 111: Detox Braddock UPMC BOC manufactures and supplies industrial gasses; both these processes cause pollution of the air and soil. USS manufactures steel; both these processes cause pollution of the air and soil. However, the medical services needed to treat the resultant medical conditions have been removed from the Braddock community. My great Uncle was required to wear a white shirt to the office every day; by the time he returned home in the evening his shirt was dark grey. That was the pollution we could see. Now the pollution is less visible, but it is still there. The photos showing air being polluted and the results of the ionic foot detox procedure are frightening. The procedure may have its skeptics; but the results show a significant quantity of pollutants in the body. As a society we need to do more to provide a healthy environment.


John Fetterman was raised in York, Pennsylvania and moved to Braddock in 2001 with AmeriCorps. He was elected mayor in 2005 and has instigated youth and arts programs. This has led to various artists and small green businesses moving to Braddock (also sometimes spelled with two c’s instead of ck – Braddocc). However, colorblindness and structural racism still seem to exist. Ten years of progress?     

IMG_5967Carl Farmer is a designer and political activist now living in Rhode Island




Politics for the People Conference Call

With LaToya Ruby Frazier

Sunday, December 6th at 7 pm EST


641 715-3605

Code 767775#

Reader’s Forum–Harriet Hoffman

I recently saw an announcement that New York City will publicly acknowledge for the first time that it sanctioned a huge slave market on Wall Street from 1711 to 1762, and that a memorial marker will be erected on the site.  This made me curious so I decided to do a little research on the Internet.  While I knew that slavery had once flourished in New York (at one time 40% of residents owned slaves) I quickly learned that the city did not just tolerate the buying and selling of slaves, it actually organized the market!  The City received tax revenue from every slave sold and itself used slave labor for infrastructure work for many years, including, it is said, the building of City Hall.  I also read that thousands of Africans who passed through the Wall Street slave market contributed to the prosperity of companies like Aetna, New York Life and JPMorgan Chase, to name a few (WNYC FM Radio, 4/14/15).  So it is no wonder that the Underground Railroad needed to keep moving escaping slaves north, out of New York City where even freed slaves were not safe.  I probably would have paid less attention to the timely acknowledgement of NYC’s slave market had I not been immersed in the wonderful stories of courage told in Eric Foner’s Gateway to Freedom.  I’m so glad this wonderful book is available now.

You can listen to Jim O’Grady’s report for WYNC radio, “City to Acknowledge It Operated a Slave Market for More Than 50 Years.”



Harper’s Magazine illustration of the New York City slave market in 1643. (Harper’s/Wikipedia Commons)

Harriet Hoffman is a consultant specializing in grant writing and helping people maximize their Medicare and social security benefits.  She is the volunteer coordinator for the NYC Independence Clubs.

P4P Conference Call

With Eric Foner

 Sunday, April 19th, 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 805 399-1200 

Access Code 767775#

Readers’ Forum–Harriet Hoffman

I began reading I Am Abraham with a bit of suspicion and trepidation.  I thought, how does this author presume to know the innermost thoughts and emotions of the (my) revered Abraham Lincoln?   I have my own version of the inner life of Abraham Lincoln.   I want my Lincoln to be less tortured and to have found some periods of satisfaction.  I want him to really know that he was beloved by many during his own lifetime and that history would consider him to be one of our greatest Presidents, perhaps even the greatest.

But as I became engrossed in this book, I began to care deeply about Mr. Charyn’s Abe.  I felt really sad about his frequent bouts of deep depression and doubt, his wife Mary’s mental illness, his feelings of responsibility for every soldier killed or wounded, the treachery of many people around him, and his own personal losses, and I was moved by his courage and determination and humanity.

As a lifelong activist I was very interested in this Abraham Lincoln as a campaigner for political office.  When he was running for Senator and then for President, he seemed a completely reluctant candidate who detested the entire process and was

Harriet Hoffman

Harriet Hoffman

miserable and humiliated.   That surprised me.  Did he agree to run for President just because Mary and others wanted him to?  Did he believe he was needed to lead the country, and could?  In this book Lincoln felt defeated in his seven debates with Douglas about slavery, while the historic Lincoln did edit them afterwards and publish them in a book, which led to his nomination for President by the Republican Party.   I’d like to ask the author how he understands that dichotomy between Lincoln’s emotions and his brilliance as a writer and his extraordinary leadership.

In the end I really appreciated this risky book that defied the stereotypes of the iconic Abraham Lincoln and gave us the turmoil and chaos of the era in which Lincoln lived and the unimaginably difficult challenges of his life and Presidency.  Mr. Charyn’s Abe remained kind and caring and continued to lead despite those terrible circumstances and own torment and loss.  I was thrilled with this portrayal of both him and Mary as determined opponents of slavery who defied convention and took risks to support individuals like Elizabeth and other former slaves and soldiers in need.  I loved the chapter where he insisted that the former slaves and free Blacks were needed to help the North win the Civil War and further, that they had the right to fight.

I decided to put aside all those questions of what did or did not happen in “real life.”  Did the real Abe Lincoln really sneak away and wander around Washington by himself?  Doesn’t matter.  Reading about his escapades in this book was wonderful and we don’t need to know the truth.

Harriet Hoffman is a consultant specializing in grant writing and helping people maximize their Medicare and social security benefits.  She is the volunteer coordinator for the NYC Independence Clubs.

P4P Conference Call

With Jerome Charyn

 Sunday, February 15th at 7 pm EST

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