Here are artifacts of my past and present—and a few of my dreams for the future. There’s stuff here about family, social justice, the “causes” I support, what I do for fun, my relationship with money, my hobbies, and other odds and ends.
Joani Blank, Interviewed by Herself:
So, Joani, tell us all the places you’ve lived.
Since my birth in 1937, I lived in a Boston suburb through high school, then Oberlin (Ohio), Honolulu , Chapel Hill (North Carolina), Detroit , Concord (New Hampshire), Morgantown (West Virginia) and, since 1971, in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Bay Area is the best place I’ve ever lived–and no, I’m not frightened by earthquakes.
Where did you go to school?
I matriculated (love that word) at Winn Brook School, Belmont (MA) Junior High and High Schools, Oberlin College (B.A.), the University of Hawaii (M.A.), and the University of North Carolina (M.P.H). I’m very fond of college towns, and though I’ve never had any association with University of California there, I enjoy living a few miles from the lively city of Berkeley .
Didn’t you used to live on the San Francisco Peninsula?
From 1971 to 1991 I lived in a wonderful cedar-shingle house built in 1906, one of the first houses on Burlingame Ave. in Burlingame. Most likely the house originally belonged to a family escaping San Francisco after the great quake and fire. Mark, my ex-husband, and I raised our daughter there. Neither of us owns that home any more, but we all carry fond memories of it.
You have a daughter and grandchildren, don’t you…?
My daughter was adopted at birth by Mark Wandro and me. Ours was an open adoption; we were in the hospital when she was born and took her home when she was two-and-a-half days old. She and her children have had the good fortune to know her birth mother all their lives, although they’ve had very little contact with her in recent years.
What about the rest of your family?
My mother lived to be ninety. And my father lived to see the new millennium; he died at 98 in 2000. My sister, Barbara (Bobbie Blank) Hauser, lives in Brookline, MA. Her husand, Dr. Stuard Hauser, passed away in 2008. Bobbie and Stuart’s son Joshua, a physician specializing in end-of-life care, lives in Chicago with his wife Juliet and their children Jonathan and Emily. My other nephew Ethan, author of many published essays and short stories, and an editor at the New York Times, published his first novel The Measures Between Us in 2013. (A photo of many of my family at Joshua and Juliet’s wedding in 1998 and portraits of my parents and grandparents can be found in my historic photo album.)
Tell us about your connections with Oberlin
I graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio at the end of the ‘fifties. I majored in sociology/anthropology and acquired my first serious appreciation for cultural relativism. In the spring of 1999, I attended my 40th reunion and participated in a panel where I spoke on “the sexual mores of the fifties.” In 2004, I was back on campus for an Alumni Folk Music reunion. Alums from the fifties through the nineties joined current students in singing all the “old songs”. In March of 2006, I was the keynote speaker for a small student-run sexuality conference. My topic was “A fifty-year retrospective on sexuality: America’s, my peers’ and my own.” My class celebrated its 50th reunion in 2009, which I enjoyed immensely.
And after college?
In 1962, after being deselected from the Peace Corps before going abroad, I headed west–and didn’t stop until I got to Honolulu. Might as well go to grad school, I thought, and did so at the University of Hawaii, majoring in Asian Studies with a concentration in Public Health. I received my MA in 1964 with a 42-page thesis on Health Program Planning in Indonesia. I loved living in the Islands, and were it not for “rock fever” (the feeling of being stuck out in the middle of the ocean), I might never have left. While in school at UH, I learned to speak and read a little bahasa Indonesia; I took music classes in koto and jamisen (the Okinwawan shamisen), and classes in Japanese, Korean and Pilipino dance. Then I headed back east where I enrolled in the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and received my MPH in Public Health Education in the summer of 1965. My special interest was family planning. Unbeknownst to me at the time, that was the beginning of my slide into the field of sexuality.
Did you end up working in family planning?
Yup, in Detroit, New Hampshire, West Virginia, and eventually California, arriving here in 1971.
How did you find yourself professionally involved in sexuality?
Through lucky chance. Within weeks of moving to California in 1971, I met Maggi Rubenstein and eagerly joined the women’s consciousness-raising group she was starting. An R.N., Maggi was one of the three courageous women who started San Francisco Sex Information, and I had the privilege of being in the very first group of volunteers. After that, I trained and worked in the Sex Counseling Program at University of California at San Francisco for several years. The rest, as they say, is history.
Tell us about your travels.
Upon leaving Oberlin, I took a very long trip–around the world–staying in India for six months and visiting several other Asian countries, for a total of more than 11 months abroad. At the time it seemed like no big deal (except that traveling by myself was pretty darned lonely), but as I look back, it seems like a huge adventure. I learned a lot–about the world and about myself. I’ve been an Indiophile ever since then but didn’t return to South Asia until January of 2005, when I went to Mumbai (Bombay) on a Reality Tour with a Global Exchange group attending the World Social Forum there. On that tour we also went out to some rural villages to visit small economic development projects, and spent one unforgettable day in Dharavi in Mumbai, the largest urban slum in the world home to more than a million residents. My first trip to the southern hemisphere took me to Australia in April of 2007 to attend the World Congress of Sexual Health, and to experience a five day desert safari in the Northern Territories.
Word is that you’re a singer of sorts.
Well, I’d sung in one choir or another since high school, and I did lots of folk music in my years at Oberlin. Within weeks of moving to California in 1971 I joined the chorus at the College of San Mateo, later known as Masterworks Chorale. We had fewer than 50 singers in the group then, but we always performed with professional soloists and, starting a few years after I joined, with a professional orchestra. At its largest, Masterworks Chorale grew to 180 singers; we performed all the well-known and several lesser-known major choral works in both San Mateo and San Francisco. I stayed with Masterworks, under the inspiring leadership of Maestro Galen Marshall, for 25 years; during that time I attended well over a thousand rehearsals. I had the thrilling experience of singing with Masterworks at Lincoln Center and in Carnegie Hall, and traveled with them on three concert tours as well: to China (and Hong Kong), Spain, and Central/Eastern Europe. After a short break from singing with Masterworks, I joined Crescendo, the choir at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, my “home church”, a strong choir with a sterling director, and I derive a lot of satisfaction from singing there.
And now what are you doing with music?
Quite a bit. I played taiko drums for a while and sometimes wish I was still doing it. I’d like to take up international–especially Balkan–dance again (although I’m not sure my aging left knee will allow it). Folk dance was a great love of mine through the sixties. In 2004 I started playing English hand-bells at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland. That’s a new musical challenge for me. Each bell ringer has to find his or her two to four notes in a sometimes big fat chord, or in the middle of a fast run. I’ve been a recorder player since high school. In 2001 I joined the East Bay Recorder Society and enjoy the monthly sessions a great deal. Fortunately, I’m quite a good sight reader so I don’t have to practice between playing sessions.
Did you say “church” choir? I thought you were Jewish.
I am Jewish–a Jewish Unitarian-Universalist. I was drawn to First Unitarian Church of Oakland in 1992 when I moved to the east side of San Francisco Bay. I value the congregation’s commitment to social justice, especially in the downtown neighborhood just blocks from my home. I treasured the co-ministers, Janne and Rob Eller-Isaacs, who moved to a church in St. Paul, MN in 2001, and the strength of the church community. Our current minister Kathy Huff is taking our congregation to new heights in many ways. Being active in the life of this congregation–a part of this beloved community–continually reminds me of what is important in life.
Any important pieces of your life you haven’t told us about?
One especially. In 1992, I converted Good Vibrations and Down There Press into a worker cooperative. At the time, there were fourteen owners (including me in my new status as an equal owner). While I’m no longer an employee or owner, the company continued as a cooperative growing to 100 worker-owners until early in 2006. At that time the current owners, more than 70 of them, voted to abandon the cooperative ownership structure in favor of a more conventional corporate structure so that Good Vibrations could attract an outside investor. Yes, I was sad to see the co-op dissolve, but I heartily approve one of the goals of the transition, which is to expand retail operations into cities around the U.S. that do not currently have a sex positive sex-toy store.
You’ve become very involved in socially responsible investing.
Yes, and I have a deliberately broad notion of what socially responsible investing encompasses. It starts with philanthropy and progresses through personal lending to friends in business, lending to cohousing groups and to local and national community loan funds, and purchasing shares in (or making loans to) small privately held companies that are doing environment-saving work. It ends where socially responsible investing usually both starts and ends; that is, I own mutual funds that invest only in companies that pass the funds’ social screens.
Rumor has it you received some public honors in 2008
Yes,I received two recognitions that I’m both proud of and humbled by. Early in 2008, the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality granted me an honorary Doctor of Arts degree for my more than 30 years of work in the sex field. And in Spring of the same year, I was designated “Champion of the Movement” by the Cohousing Association of the United States, who recognized me for “fifteen years of vision and leadership.”
What will you be up to over the coming years?
I have a couple of books up my sleeve relating to sexuality, but I’m more likely to cajole someone else into writing or editing them, than I am to write or edit them myself. (Curious? See details on other pages). From time to time, I still enjoy presenting sexuality workshops around the US and Canada. Since Down There Press was sold to another publisher who decided not to reissue any of the titles I’ve written or edited, I have found alternative ways to make some of these books available to meet continuing demand. I’m especially pleased to be able to offer my two children’s books for free download.
I hope to spend more time with my grandchildren and my great-granddaughter, born to my grandson and his partner in Vancouver, WA in 2011–before they get too much more grown up. And I’m still deeply involved with the cohousing movement. I served eight years on the board of the Cohousing Association of the United States(formerly The Cohousing Network), I coordinated the Association’s national conference, held in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (one of my alma maters) in July of 2006. The end of 2008 marked the formal end of my six or seven years as Tours Coordinator for Coho/US, but I continue to have my fingers in several pies within the organization.
If you want to learn more about me, you can read this humorous interview with Hoot Island.