Written by Caroline Peattie, Executive Director
In the midst of the pandemic and two days after the killing of George Floyd, the world lost a fair housing warrior and I lost a dear friend. Nancy Kenyon passed away peacefully at home surrounded by family last week.
When I first met Nancy almost 3 decades ago, I was the Executive Director of a fair housing agency in Oakland. We immediately hit it off and began working together on a shared project. It was a wonderful collaboration and I was extremely impressed with Nancy’s energy and vibrant personality.
Nancy managed, in a small organization, to retain many highly competent and committed staff members for years, and in many cases, well over a decade — probably because of the outstanding qualities that she exuded as a person, as well as the easy, yet caring and committed work environment she created to inspire others.
As one long-time staffer said, “What I most appreciate about Nancy is her deep belief in justice and civil rights and her willingness to defend these beliefs, her ability to look at obstacles as challenges,” — and I would add, “opportunities”— “the connections she easily makes with diverse groups of people of all ages, her gracious and relaxed leadership style, her adventurousness and love of life.”
Nancy saw the humanity in people and really listened to people’s stories about themselves, and this manifested in the workplace in a variety of ways — including allowing for flexibility in schedules and work styles. It’s no wonder that she had a number of working mothers on her staff over time, because she allowed them to reach their working potential and be mothers, too. When, shortly after beginning my tenure at the agency, my 18-month-old baby was diagnosed with diabetes and hospitalized, Nancy couldn’t have been more supportive. That support continued through the years as I raised a child with special needs. Her love of her own family — and she was so proud of her kids! — expanded to include her extended work family; we responded with loyalty and respect.
Nancy remained an unabashed hippie over the decades, and she represented some of the best things about the 1960s – a certain kind of openness, optimism, and passion for activism. Her experience working on civil rights issues before there were the laws to back up those rights gave her a rare perspective.
Intrepid traveler that she was, her adventurous spirit took her wandering all over the world. She returned refreshed, regaling us with tales of her adventures. She was an avid birder and loved nature.
Nancy also had colorful stories to tell of her earlier years – being arrested for blocking a train carrying munitions (and even in prison, of course, they all took care of one another); working in New Jersey at a housing rights agency, where she and other staff told members of the mafia what they were doing wrong as landlords, then quaking with fear that their cars would explode when they turned the key in the ignition that night.
Perhaps it was some of these early experiences that helped shape some of her toughness. It took some doing to begin her fair housing work as a small program in 1982 that was part of a much larger umbrella organization, and then build it into the thriving and multi-faceted organization it became. Although we often heard Nancy’s peals of laughter ringing through the agency, there were times when she was tough as nails. She was not only the founder of our fair housing agency, but she was also a founding member and board member of the National Fair Housing Alliance, the sole national organization dedicated to ending discrimination in housing.
It has been an honor to follow in her footsteps. Nancy Kenyon will be sorely missed. I am only one of many she touched deeply.
Because of Covid-19 the family will not hold a celebration of life until a future date; if anyone has photos or stories please send them to her children at email@example.com or mail to 1375 Masonic Ave, San Francisco, CA 94117 or give them a call at 415-592-4581. If anyone is interested in making a donation in her name, please give to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.