Story and Photo by Janice Christensen

Rebecca Nole is your typical Riverwester, inasmuch as Riverwesters are not typical people.

She was born in the Bronx and grew up in New York City and went to Farello Laguardia High School For Arts And The Performaing Arts. If that sounds familiar to anyone, it’s the school where the movie “Fame” was set.

“My dad’s an accountant. He owns his own business. His office is on the seventy-fourth floor of the Empire State Building.” Real estate in tall building got pretty cheap in the early part of the decade, Rebecca explained.

“Mom’s a lawyer who does trust law for Medicaid and Medicare recipients. She worked for the City for twelve years now does contract work. Her background in mental health rehab counseling helps her set up trusts for people who wouldn’t be able to advocate for themselves in order to protect assets and benefits.”

Both her parents still live in New York, as does one younger sister who lives in Brooklyn with her little dog Cleo and her fiancée. She does camera work in the film industry. “… grip and best boy and that sort of thing,” Rebecca explains. “I think right now she’s working on The Good Wife.”

 New York schools don’t really teach geography, Rebecca reflected. “My sister called me and told me she was planning to go to UW Madison, so she was going to be closer to me. I was going to school in Ann Arbor.”

Rebecca went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor for social anthropology. “I went there because of the interdisciplinary opportunities. It was hard to pick a major, so this way I could design a major based on my interests. It was really freeing.

“It was the first time I had a campus – and I fell in love with it.

“My high school in New York was big – eight stories high and two stories below street level. You would choose your major, and spend half the day in your major and the other half in academics. I majored in visual art major, but I got in for instrumental music too. I’m a flautist.”

The problem with the urban high school experience, Rebecca recalls, was that it was confined. “I wasn’t allowed out for lunch. I took the subway to school – we lived out in a more suburban part of the Bronx. I was one of a few who had a drivers license at 18 – my parents had cars.

“At college, I could walk or bike to class. I lived in a housing co-op on campus. There were two houses in the co-op, Michigan House, the oldest student housing coop in America, and Minnie’s – named after a house mother. So the co-op was called Mich-Minnie’s Empire. I lived in the purple house – Minnie’s. Other co-ops on campus were Robert Owen House, Martin Luther King House, and the Michigan Socialist House.

“There were about 50 of us who lived in the co-op. I was president of my house, and one of the cooks. I cooked dinner for 60 once a week. I was also Vice President of Education of the Intercooperative Council  of Ann Arbor.”

Rebecca is enthusiastic about housing cooperatives – and indeed all cooperatives. “You get back what you put in, both financial and social returns.” Rebecca met her boyfriend in the co-op and traces her closest friendships back to that experience.

She graduated from college in 2002 but stayed in Ann Arbor and managed a bakery for two years, and was  president of the Inter-Cooperative Council for a year and stayed for another year working at the co-op office.

Rebecca’s interest in cooperatives continued. Conference She was president of the board for North American Students of Cooperation for three years, and organized the national convention.

She eventually moved to Portland, Oregon, where she worked for Peoples Food Coop and worked in development for the ALS association  for about three years, then she and her boyfriend, Elisha, “…decided we wanted to go to grad school get more personal goals accomplished.”

Elisha’s family was from upper Michigan and one of his sisters lives in Milwaukee. “We decided this was the place.”

“When I first got here I worked for United Neighborhood Centers of America (UNCA), an umbrella organization affiliated with Neighborhood Houses. But I decided I wanted to do more direct work.

She worked at Habitat for Humanity for three years doing development, special events, family services and support. “That was the rewarding part of the job – families I worked with.”

Rebecca decided to go back to school at UWM. “I wanted to finish my masters in Urban Studies and get my certificate in non profit businss management. This summer I will decide if I want to get a Ph.D., probably in urban geography or economics.”

Future goals? “My goal is to create a community so I could be gainfully employed at a co-op.” She has already made a start by taking a lead role in the new Riverwest Cooperative Alliance.

“Once you have had a great work experience where you feel empowered, any other job is going to be challenging. Working for co-ops raised the bar for me, so I’ll probably have to work in co-ops or academia. We’ll see where opportunity and timing all work out.”

With luck for Rebecca and Riverwest, the timing and opportunity will work out so there are more cooperatives for her – and us – to enjoy.