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An interview with Vivian Stromberg

Posted on: Friday, October 10, 2008


Vivian Stromberg, the Executive Director of MADRE, is featured on the brand new website For the Greater Good, a project conceived of and created by artist and photographer Friedrike Merck. The site explores the lives and work of many courageous and interesting women.

What were the significant conditions of your childhood that affected the development of your character?

I grew up in a working-class Turkish immigrant family in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn - "between the buildings," as we used to say. In other words, a street kid. I spent a lot of time fending and figuring things out for myself. In the process, I honed a natural tendency to be irreverent and strong-willed. Those are qualities that have served me well as a political activist and a leader.

As a child, I was often cared for by my grandfather. I loved him very much and he taught me values that are still at the core of my life, my politics, and my daily work. You know, kids have an innate sense of justice. What happens to them in life either affirms that sense or violates it and sometimes even extinguishes it. In my case, I learned from my grandfather that things could be better than they are. I understood from him that we were part of a larger puzzle that involved people all around the world who also knew that things could be better. Long before the phrase became a slogan, my grandfather taught me that another world is possible, and I've been working to build that world ever since.

What was your first experience working for the greater good?

When I was eighteen, a friend invited me to join a demonstration against the testing of the H-bomb. He said the bomb released strontium 90 and it got into the air and into the fields where cows grazed. The result: kids who drank that milk were losing their teeth. I didn't even know what strontium 90 was, but I was very sure that I was against it. How could I not be? Kids were losing their teeth.

That was the beginning of a learning process that has gripped me all my life. I began to read and talk to people and I learned from them. I learned about segregation, and an anger grew up inside of me. How could it be that I never was taught about this in school? How could it be?

In the 1960s I joined the civil rights movement, and I began my journey through the Freedom Rides, labor and union struggles, school integration, Vietnam, the arms race, the U.S.-sponsored wars in Central America. I tried to learn as much as possible about what shaped U.S. government policies at home and around the world. It would have been unbearable to learn about these things and not act. So I joined with others and what might have felt like hopelessness, instead felt like strength. Some laws began to change. New people joined us. We were determined and we grew in numbers. We were part of something big. Just like my grandfather said we were.

What is your work right now and what do you hope it will accomplish?

In l983, I was part of a group of women who birthed a new organization, MADRE, MADRE was inspired by the women of Nicaragua who were combating the U.S.-sponsored contras. The contras were trying to overthrow the new government of Nicaragua, the Sandinistas, who had overthrown one of the most brutal dictators in its history, General Somoza. The Sandinistas and the Nicaraguan people had set out to build a new Nicaragua. Women were leaders. Mothers turned their grief into action.

MADRE began as a multicultural, multiracial, cross-class friendship association with the women of Central America. We connected U.S. policy there with policies that directly affected women in the U.S. We sent medical and humanitarian support, and we shared what we learned with audiences in the U.S., believing that when people knew what their government was doing, they would take action to demand change.

In 1990, I retired from my full-time teaching position in the South Bronx to become the Executive Director of MADRE. Today, we are an internationally recognized women's human rights organization with partners in over a dozen countries, playing a leadership role in the global women's movement. As a human rights organization, MADRE does much more than document and condemn abuses. We work with women who are affected by violations to help them win justice and, ultimately, change the conditions that give rise to those abuses. And we work with our U.S.-based membership - more than 25,000 people - to challenge and change U.S. policies that threaten human rights. Ultimately, the aim of MADRE is to ensure that all women, all people, enjoy the full range of human rights. And we do this work as part of the ongoing process of making the world a better and safer place.

I raised my daughters as a single mother and now have grandchildren who fill me with joy and increased commitment to build a just and decent world - for them and for all of us.”

To read other interviews, visit

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