Zoë Kimmel / by Michael Falco

Who is Zoë Kimmel?

Zoë Kimmel was born (1949) and raised in Chicago. She grew up in the 50s and 60s and first married in 1968, moving to Michigan soon after. She is a retired teacher, but also spent some time working in the non-profit sector.  Since the taping, she has retired as Director of Christian Education and is now secretary at a small church on the north side of Battle Creek. She is a mom, grandma, and great grandma; an avid reader; and a writer.  She lives in the country on a five-acre homestead in Nashville, Michigan... Smooring En Farm Friends LLC... where she and her best friend Ruth tend their alpacas, make fiber products, and do outdoor education activities with children of all ages.  

Excerpt from interview with Zoë Kimmel by Whitney Dow, 2017

Q: Can you tell me a little bit what motivated you to get involved in this project?

Kimmel: [00:51:59] Well, this project, to me, seems like a necessity, and I say that in the sense that all of my life because of where I grew up, and how I grew up, and my own personal quirks and beliefs, there have been a lot of things that didn’t fit for me. So, I grew up in Chicago. You know I mentioned earlier, I lived there during the ’50s and ’60s with all of the stuff going on with racial issues, with political issues, with the Democratic convention, with Mayor [Richard J.] Daley senior—Mayor Daley was in charge. And so, we knew all of the stuff with, you know, greasing the palms of the aldermen and the jokes about dead people voting. So that was the environment I grew up in.

[00:52:21] In my household, I had one parent who was staunch Democrat, one parent who was equally staunch Republican; although, I suspect she probably might have voted independent occasionally along the way. She was more open-minded than my father was. But I would look around at these things. I lived in a neighborhood that would have been considered a Jewish neighborhood, but we were right on the borderline between Irving Park and Albany Park in Chicago. So, the group that I spent the most time with and identified with the most was what we called the Jewish neighborhood. Interestingly, we never talked about whether they were German Jews, or Polish Jews, or you know? We just identified them by their faith.

[00:52:39] So, I’m living in this household that is sort of pseudo-Christian—my maiden name was Schneider, so pretty clearly German roots there—in this Jewish neighborhood, and I could never figure out attitudes. You know, these were our friends, and neighbors, and people that my dad did business with and all that sort of thing, but within the doors of the household, he had very bigoted and judgmental attitudes. And at that point, we didn’t talk about immigrants. We talked about DPs [Displaced Persons], and he would have all of these comments about, “Well, they just come in here, and they buy up all the property, and they do this.” You know never was there a sense of, “Well, isn’t that a good way to get established? That you come in, you invest in property, and you buy rental units, and you take care of them? I mean they were wonderful neighbors, but there was always this dichotomy it seemed like.

And then I was in high school in Chicago when Chicago started the permissive transfer plan, which was their euphemistic title for trying to integrate the schools a little bit. So, in my, I want to say, sophomore year of high school, there were ten, I believe, handpicked African American students who were brought up from the Southside, which traditionally has been the more predominantly black side of the city. Brought up to our ninety-some percent Jewish population, white high school on the north side, and that was supposed to take care of stuff, something.

And even at the time, we recognized how absurd that was. That these ten kids were brought out of their own neighborhood, away from their friends and their culture, and so forth and were dropped into ours. And a number of them, I mean, one of the guys was elected as our class president and even very well liked, but I don’t ever remember us processing with him what it felt like from his perspective. You know, we welcomed him into our world, but I don’t ever remember there being any serious conversation about what did it feel like from his perspective.

And then, of course, being a teenager, I argued with my parents about choices that I wanted to make, which included wanting to go to an all-black dance on the Southside of the city, and my parents wouldn’t hear of it. You know so, there was always this, “Well, you tell me I’m supposed to respect people, and get to know them, and accept them, and take them one a time, not judge them as a group, and yet, that’s exactly what you’re doing.”

So, I sort grew up with that struggle, and yet I know at the same time—I didn’t have a name for it until I read Peggy McIntosh’s article about White Privilege: [Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack] but, I knew at the time that I could deal with it when I wanted to deal with it. And then I could just put it on the shelf and ignore it when I didn’t want to have to wrestle with it. So... I mean clearly, white privilege was also a part of that upbringing.

It breaks my heart now to look at what’s going on in the country. To listen to my friends of color, to feel like we’re going backwards when it felt like, okay, we fought this fight and we tried to fix this, and thought we had made more progress. So, there have been multiple times when I’ve had the opportunity to take a program or to participate in some conversation about racism, and I just feel like I need to step up. You know, if this is something I really believe in, I need to step up and say, “Okay, what’s my part in it?” And, yes, it may be uncomfortable and, yes, I may be sad and all that, but I can’t point a finger at anybody else if I’m not willing to put myself in the hot seat.

Interview Transcript