Born and raised in New York City, Ruth Messinger imbibed her parents’ passion for FDR and especially for the New Deal as a model for what government could and should do. Her long career as a social worker, celebrated New York City politician, and honored social justice leader reflects and magnifies that passion.
At Harvard University, she was inspired by one of her professors, who started every class saying, “I told Franklin….”—a phrase that seemed to connect her to a living past.
Messinger earned a Master of Social Work degree at the University of Oklahoma and spent two years living and working in the rural Western part of the state. There, she saw first-hand evidence of the way the CCC had put people to work to improve their communities.
From 1977 through 1989, she served on the New York City Council, representing the Upper West Side. During that period, she grew increasingly aware of the New Deal’s impact on the city. Creating jobs and supporting community needs remained top-of-mind throughout her tenure on the Council.
As Manhattan Borough President from 1990 to 1997, Messinger championed public schools and supported neighborhood activists, particularly in their efforts to renovate and improve their communities. Among many other fondly remembered projects, she worked with many City agencies to develop a path along the entire periphery of the island, with the exception of a stretch of blocks near the UN. For the first time, people could walk, skate, or bicycle all around Manhattan, traversing the city’s diverse neighborhoods and taking in a wealth of scenic views along the way.
She gave up that position in 1997 to run for mayor, unsuccessfully yet memorably. Then, from 1998 to 2016, she worked at American Jewish World Service (AJWS), an international human rights and development nonprofit, as its President and CEO.
The organization “doesn’t tell anybody what to do,” she says. “It funds indigenous organizations to work on issues such as child marriage, LGBT rights, land ownership, and disaster relief, helping them create their own visions of justice in hundreds of communities in 19 countries around the world.”
Today, Messinger serves as AJWS Global Ambassador and works with several other organizations, teaching and developing programs to enhance social justice. Her work is currently focused on voting rights, immigration, the environment, and anti-racism issues.
Then and Now
Messinger draws inspiration from an apocryphal story. Early in FDR’s first term, progressives and labor leaders met with the new president to share ideas for the changes they wanted to see. At the end of the meeting, FDR said: “That’s fine, I agree with you. Now, go out and make me do it.”
That’s exactly what Messinger believes we need to do now with respect to a Green New Deal, a new CCC, and a revitalized New York City subway system! “We need grassroots involvement to make the federal government do it,” she says. Of course, she adds, that means we need to win the presidential election and regain a healthy majority in the Senate.
Messinger has become one of the Living New Deal NYC’s most effective advisors. She believes passionately in our mission of highlighting the original New Deal story as a reminder to people of what was done then and what can be done again.