Born in 1948 in Newark, New Jersey, Margery Tabankin was inspired to become part of the New Left as a result of a speech she heard Tom Hayden, then-president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), deliver in her hometown in 1963. “He had an absolutely profound effect on me,” recalls Tabankin.
From 1965-69 Tabankin attended the University of Wisconsin, where she became an anti-war activist and civil-rights demonstrator while pursuing a degree in political science. She also joined SDS. Recalling that “part of being a woman [in the Sixties] was this psychology of proving I was such a good radical, ‘better than the men,’” Tabankin says: “Most guys didn’t take women seriously, however. They [women] were things to f**k…. You went through this intense experience [at demonstrations], and you went back and had sex. [But] It was much more on men’s terms.”
After completing her formal education, Tabankin studied community organizing at Saul Alinsky‘s Industrial Areas Foundation in Chicago. She then went to Washington, DC to work on the Youth Citizenship Fund‘s campaign to pass a Constitutional Amendment lowering the legal voting age from 21 to 18.
In 1971 Tabankin joined the advisory board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), dedicated to the legalization of that drug. That same year, she was elected as the first female president of the National Student Association, a group that was vocal in its opposition to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Upon her election, Tabankin said she felt a “deep commitment to the eradication of white racism and a sincere desire to work with minority students in the common struggle to change priorities.”
In 1972 Tabankin, who believed that the Vietcong “were fighting a liberation struggle,” was one of 300 Americans whom the North Vietnamese government invited to take part in a friendly meeting.
Also in ’72, Tabankin became executive director of the Washington, DC-based Youth Project, a Center for Community Change initiative that funded efforts by young people to administer community self-help programs.
In May 1977, Tabankin became involved with VISTA, a governmental organization that dispatched volunteers to impoverished areas of the United States to address such issues as poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment. According to bestselling author Stanley Kurtz, President Jimmy Carter at that time placed the VISTA program “in the de facto control of die-hard radicals from the sixties”—one of whom was Tabankin. This happened, in part, because Heather Booth, Tom Hayden, and Jane Fonda were vocal in recommending that Tabankin—who was their friend as well as an ally of many leaders and community organizers affilited with ACORN and the Midwest Academy network—be appointed as director of the federal ACTION agency, which administered VISTA. Kurtz notes that after Tabankin was named to that post, she “quickly found a way to divert VISTA money from traditional ‘direct service’ volunteering to her community organizer colleagues.” Specifically, “Tabankin arranged a series of meetings in Washington, D.C., with the nation’s top community organizers—many of whom also happened to be her friends. Out of those meetings came a scheme for distributing VISTA grants directly to national networks like ACORN and the Midwest Academy. This new national program made it possible to circumvent state-level grant restrictions and successfully kept the system out of the public eye for a time.”
According to the Heritage Foundation, Tabankin, during her four-year tenure with ACTION and VISTA, sought to develop a “nationwide network of radical organizations” that would “work towards more equitable distribution of income and opportunities.” She helped VISTA institute a federally funded grant-making program that quickly developed a reputation as a significant source of cash for leftist activists and organizations nationwide. Among the more noteworthy beneficiaries of these funds were ACORN and the Midwest Academy.
In February 1981, President Ronald Reagan appointed Thomas Pauken to replace Tabankin as director of ACTION. Pauken quickly opened investigations into the the possible abuse of VISTA programs by the Midwest Academy and related organizations. He also discovered that VISTA was using highly politicized tracts—such as an essay on socialist feminism by Heather Booth—to train its personnel. Moreover, the probe found that VISTA was busy distributing—at taxpayer expense—thousands of copies of Saul Alinsky‘s Rules for Radicals to community organizers all across the United States.
Because of VISTA’s radicalism, the Reagan administration substantially cut governmental funding and administrative support for the organization in the 1980s.
From 1981-88, Tabankin served as executive director of the Arca Foundation‘s board. From 1988-94, she was executive director of the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee (HWPC), an organization of entertainers that raised millions of dollars to support leftwing candidates and causes. At one point during her time with HWPC, Tabankin took a sabbatical to serve as a Fellow at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics.
In 1989 Tabankin traveled to the West Bank and met with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, in a trip supported by the Arca Foundation. Acknowledging that “[t]his one was a huge dilemma for me as a Jew,” Tabankin justified the visit by reasoning “that the survival of Israel meant hearing out a peaceful solution to the situation as opposed to taking a rigid view of ‘don’t negotiate, don’t be flexible.’”
On another occasion, Tabankin also met with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
In February 1995, a private party was held in New York to celebrate Tabankin’s selection as executive director of Steven Spielberg‘s Righteous Persons Foundation. Attendees included such notables as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Ruth Messinger, Charles Schumer, Mark Green, Basil Paterson, David Paterson, and David Dinkins.
Tabankin, who claims to have formed “a close friendship” with entertainer Barbra Streisand, has been executive director of the Barbra Streisand Foundation since 1988. She has also served as a board of directors member for Defenders of Wildlife, an advisory board member of the Liberty Hill Foundation, a board of directors member of People for the American Way, director of the Institute for America’s Future, and chairwoman of the Proteus Fund. Moreover, she is president of Tabankin and Associates, a consulting firm servicing a number of private, progressive family foundations and individuals with their philanthropic and political donations.
In 2013 Tabankin received a Campaign for America’s Future Lifetime Achievement Award.
Since 1990, Tabankin has made numerous monetary contributions to Democrat and leftist political candidates, including such notables as Karen Bass, Barbara Boxer, Sherrod Brown, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean, Donna Edwards, Rahm Emanuel, Dianne Feinstein, Kirsten Gillibrand, John Kerry, Jim McGovern, Walter Mondale, Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Adam Schiff, Bobby Scott, Norman Solomon, and Tom Udall. She also has given money to the Progressive Majority and a number of other political activist organizations.
For additional information on Margery Tabankin, click here.
Further Reading: “Woman Warrior” (L.A. Times, 7-31-1994); “Margery Tabankin” (Keywiki.org, USC News 21, SourceWatch.org); “The New Left in Government Part II: The VISTA Program as ‘Institution Building’” (Heritage Foundation, 2-19-1982); “Honoring Marge Tabankin: A Lifetime Fueling the Progressive Movement” (OurFuture.org, 11-1-2013).