When it rains, it pours. And for Elaine Schroeder, we’re not talking precipitation. Last week she was honored with a YWCA Alaska Women of Achievement Award for 2013, and in late November was selected to receive AWARE’s Women of Distinction Award for 2014, as well.
Schroeder, 69, has a long list of accomplishments, including a Ph.D. in social work, a stint in the Peace Corps, and helping to found the second women’s rape crisis center in the country. Her passions have taken her from her birthplace in the south side of Chicago to India, Nepal, Paris, and here she is in Juneau.
Schroeder came from a working class family, born to what she called “salt of the earth people,” and had a fine childhood, she said.
“But that’s not the interesting part,” Schroeder said.
It was when she was in college and started following her passions that her story got more interesting. She went to school in Wisconsin and Illinois, studying French.
“I was and am a total Francophile,” she admitted, and got involved in conscientious objector counseling, draft counseling and protesting the war in Vietnam. Her belief in non-violence and social justice would shape most of her actions in life.
After her undergraduate studies, she went straight into the Peace Corps. She had wanted to go to North Africa, but ended up in the Bihar region of India following a famine.
“It was the poorest state in India and we were in a really impoverished village,” Schroeder said. She served in the Peace Corps with her husband, Robert “Bob” Schroeder, whom she “married young at age 20.”
“I was attracted to him for the right reasons — he wrote poetry and was really smart,” she said. “That was really important to me.”
They were birth control educators and learned Hindi while they were there. Schroeder said they still keep in touch with friends in the village and went back a few years ago.
Despite it being “really tough and really hot,” she described it as a very positive experience.
After their time in India, Schroeder and her husband worked briefly as social workers in New Bedford, Mass., before heading to Seattle for graduate school, where Schroeder studied clinical social work. She became the first woman in the Pacific Northwest to receive a Rotary grant to return to Asia for her master’s thesis research.
But as she and her husband were preparing to go back to India, their visas were revoked because of the Bangladesh Liberation War, also known as the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. Instead, the couple were able to go to Nepal with a university affiliation in Katmandu.
She conducted research on the reproductive behavior of women in the region, having discerned from her work on a birth control program in India that it is important to understand a culture to introduce programs that would be helpful.
“You have to have sort of a sexual ethnography to know what’s going on,” she said.
They spent two years in Nepal, then returned for another two years soon thereafter, strengthening their ties while she worked as a counselor for Peace Corps volunteers. Schroeder said they returned for a visit in February.
After completing her master’s program, she entered a Ph.D. program at the University of Washington in clinical social work.
She worked with teen prostitutes, of whom she said the majority were victims of sexual abuse and incest.
“They’ve been abused and are not being further abused,” Schroeder said of the young women. Based on her research, she developed therapeutic intervention to help the young women transition out of prostitution.
While in Seattle, Schroeder was heavily involved with the women’s movement. She said as she was flying back to Seattle, women were allegedly burning their bras.
“I took a look at that and thought, ‘This is for me,’” she said.
She was part of the beginning of many things in Seattle, including the feminist women’s caucus at the school of social work and the rape crisis center Rape Relief, which received its name in her own apartment, and the Aradia Women’s Health Center.
The Seattle Times called Aradia Women’s Health Center a pioneer in women’s health and, reporting on its closing in 2006, they quoted Amy Luftig, then deputy director of public policy for the Planned Parenthood Network of Washingon as saying it “revolutionized” standards of care for women in Washington and beyond.”
“We organized it and we built it and it was just incredible what we were doing then,” Schroeder said.
Schroeder was also still active in opposing the war in Vietnam. She believes there is no violent solution in contemporary times to any personal or international problems and said she’s felt “personally responsible to do something about it.”
She received the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1991 from the University of Washington, primarily for her activism, she said.
When Schroeder and her husband moved to Juneau about 30 years ago, she didn’t let a change in pace slow her down. She worked with AWARE to develop programming and taught at the University of Alaska Southeast before opening a private practice, which she still runs today. She also leads a bereavement group for Hospice and Home Care of Juneau and co-founded the stress reduction program at Bartlett Regional Hospital. She also helped to form Juneau People for Peace and Justice right after Sept. 11, 2001, and Alaskans for Juneau.
Schroeder is excited about an upcoming speaker they will bring to Juneau with Northern Light United Church, Father John Dear, a Jesuit priest who has been arrested more than 75 times for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience against war and injustice. She met him at a zen retreat in New Mexico. Alaskans for Juneau focuses on environmental issues important to Schroeder and other residents. Schroeder said they worked many years to ensure any mining done at the AJ Mine or any development of that property would be done responsibly.
If it’s surprising that Schroeder was able to accomplish so much, it’s also notable that she and her husband, certain they didn’t want to have children of their own, found themselves building a family — something she called the “surprise of my life.”
Not long after moving to Juneau, the couple attended a meeting for a group called OARS, no longer active, which sponsored refugees. At the meeting, they agreed to house two Vietnamese refugees, brothers aged 21 and 13, who had been in concentration camps in Indonesia. The 21-year-old ended up heading to California, but the younger brother, Vu, was left with nobody to care for him.
“Vu, in halting English, said, ‘Can I stay here?’ and Bob and I looked at each other and with a flick of the eye ... we said sure. And that was the beginning of our little family,” Schroeder said.
They officially adopted Vu, now 41 and married with three children, and living in the Seattle area. They also adopted Nathan at age 5 from Thailand, now 28 and attending the University of Alaska Anchorage, and Eve at age 3, a Tibetan refugee, who is still in Juneau with her daughter, today.
Though she’s lived and traveled all over, Juneau is home for Schroeder, in part because she didn’t want to “live above the crowd,” she said.
“When you’re an expat in a poor country, you’re privileged, there’s no way around it. I didn’t want that kind of lifestyle,” Schroeder said.
And despite coming from a big city background and her love of Paris and activism in Seattle, Juneau’s community and landscape have kept her here.
“What I learned in Seattle, working on the streets with prostitutes, was that I’d get really burnt out unless I spent a lot of time in nature,” she said. “I really learned to love the great out-of-doors.”
With all that Schroeder has balanced in her life, from education and activism to running a private practice and raising a family, it’s not a surprise that the YWCA Alaska and AWARE would select Schroeder, the first YWCA honoree outside of Anchorage, to receive their awards this year — and she should have no trouble balancing a couple more awards on her shelves.
Editor’s note: AWARE will celebrate its four 2014 Women of Distinction (Schroeder, Patricia Owen, Norene Otnes and Carol Pitts) on March 1 at Centennial Hall.
YMCA Alaska/BP’s Women of Achievement Awards, which celebrated a total of 10 Alaskans, were held in Anchorage on Dec. 5.