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Born to Organize: The Union’s New Treasurer

Throughout her life, Sharon Persinger, the recently elected PSC treasurer, has found herself in positions deemed improbable for a West Virginia daughter of a pastor from a small, rural church and the granddaughter of a coal miner.

Sharon Persinger
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Her career in math and computer science, her degree from Princeton, her past as a radical peace and anti-nuclear activist, and her life in New York City – none of these was forecast for her.

Of her latest achievement, her election to PSC leadership, she told Clarion, “It still in some ways seems a little bit of a surprise to me…”

‘Go Ahead and Do It.’

Yet dig a little deeper, and clues emerge to the means by which Persinger has carved her path. Her page on the website of Bronx Community College (BCC), where she’s an associate professor, features – in big, bold letters – a quotation from Grace Hopper, a pioneer in the development of computer languages: “Go ahead and do it, because it’s much easier to apologize later than it is to get permission.”

The obstacles facing women who seek careers in the hard sciences are well-documented; asked how she found the fortitude to follow her path, Persinger’s eyes well up. The opportunities denied her mother and grandmother helped propel her, she says.

Her maternal grandmother, she explains, had to quit school at age 13 in order to help take care of her family. And her mother, a good high school student who won a partial scholarship to college, ultimately couldn’t attend because her family needed the income she could earn working.

“They didn’t want to see that continuing in my life, they didn’t want those opportunities to be lost for me,” Persinger says. “And I guess I somehow internalized enough of that to be very persistent.”

Persinger’s union activism is also rooted in her family experience. Her grandfather was a member of the United Mine Workers of America, and after his health made it impossible to continue working, the union won benefits for miners with black lung disease that allowed him a more comfortable existence

She learned as much about how to rally people in service of goal, however, from her father’s line of work: being a pastor in a small town. “That’s community organizing,” she says.

After doing two years of undergraduate work at West Virginia University, Persinger transferred to Princeton. It was like being air-dropped into another world, Persinger says. “Princeton had just become coed, so I attributed a lot of the difficulties and confusion [I experienced there] to being about gender,” she explains. “I really wasn’t all that class-aware. It took getting through there, and then reflecting later, to acknowledge how much of it was about class.”

Building Commitment

After graduation, Persinger came to New York to tutor at Hunter College, and enrolled at the CUNY Graduate Center to pursue her PhD. During her early years in the city, she worked with the Shad Alliance, participating in civil disobedience designed to prevent Long Island’s Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant from going on line. The activists won.

Persinger’s work with the PSC began when she took a teaching position at Bronx Community College. She was content to remain an activist member of the rank and file, but she was asked to run as vice chair of the BCC chapter. When her chapter chair became pregnant, Persinger became the chapter’s de facto leader, tasked with organizing a 2010 hearing on the BCC campus about the CUNY budget and the impact of austerity on CUNY campuses. “I had great assistance from the organizing staff here,” she says of the PSC.

At Bronx Community College, austerity measures made a profound impact on the PSC’s new treasurer. “The floor that has the chemistry labs had all the ceiling tiles falling in, and leaks from the roof,” Persinger says, adding that the message this sent to CUNY students is that “the work you’re doing just isn’t that important.”

Although BCC has seen some improvement in the physical plant over the last several years, Persinger hastens to add that “there are still unmet needs throughout the (CUNY) system.”

Perhaps that’s one reason why she sees the future of PSC at its grassroots. “Any union’s strength is in its membership and it is proportional to the activity, to the dedication, to the real commitment of the membership,” she says. So, in addition to tending to the financial health of the PSC, she says, “that’s what I want to be working on: building members’ commitment to their union.”