Josepha "Jossy" Eyre
Jossy was a loving, merciful person. She was just the one you wanted to connect with when you were struggling. She would drop everything and focus all her attention, almost like nothing else existed in that moment. Jossy was always busy. She responded to people's needs, even welcoming friends, or friends of friends into her home when they had no place else to go. She was very aware of the poor and helped start programs and nonprofits that could relieve their situation and give people a leg up. Jossy was a good friend to many. She acted in a Romero Troupe play a few years ago. The joy and excitement that eminated from her on stage added to the energy of the whole troupe. We are all a little better people today because we got to know Jossy. She lived a full life and we miss her now. Rest in peace Jossy.
Josepha “Jossy” Eyre with Women Bean Project staff members and participants. Photo courtesy of 5280.com
Women’s Bean Project Founder Josepha Eyre Dies From COVID-19
Eyre passed away on April 20 at age 89, leaving behind a legacy of empowering women.
BY ALLYSON REEDY • APRIL 23, 2020
Josepha “Jossy” Eyre may be best known in Denver for starting the Women’s Bean Project, but her fascinating life and generous spirit extended far beyond bean soup and baking mixes. From a childhood spent in Nazi-occupied Holland to decades of empowering women in the United States, Eyre’s experiences and contributions were outsized. On April 20, at age 89, Eyre died of complications from COVID-19.
“She wasn’t going to let anything get in her way,” says Tamra Ryan, CEO of Women’s Bean Project. “Even as she got older, she was not wrapping it up. She was still doing what she wanted to do on her own terms. She was a force, and I loved that about her.”
Eyre grew up in Nazi-occupied Nijmegen, Holland, during World War II, where she lost siblings and her family home to American bombs. She came to the United States as a teenager, but that traumatic experience stuck with Eyre, inspiring her work to raise up others who’d lost everything.
“That loss, plus the war experience, gave me a sense that things weren’t right with my world,” Eyre said of her childhood in a 1994 Chicago Tribune story. “That was a major influence why I decided to work with women who are disenfranchised.”
When Eyre went back to school in her late 50s for a master’s degree in social work, part of the degree requirements were to embed in a nonprofit. She volunteered at a daytime homeless shelter for women and kids, where she saw the same women returning again and again. The women could get jobs, but they couldn’t keep them.
Eyre arrived in Denver in the early 1960s, a time which Ryan believes shaped Eyre’s social justice mentality and activism. She truly walked the walk—not just feeding people in need but opening her home to them; she didn’t run a homeless shelter, she moved into it herself. Eyre had seen a need to teach struggling women how to work and stay employed, and so in 1989, the Women’s Bean Project was born.
“She was always thinking about how the empowerment of employment could help someone move beyond their circumstances into self-sufficiency,” Ryan says. “She started the organization making 10-bean soup as a means to provide work. “I know, because she told me, that she never imagined it would become what it is today.”
What Women’s Bean Project is today is an organization that has trained and given hope and employment to more than 1,000 women experiencing homelessness, transitioning out of incarceration, or recovering from substance abuse. A year after graduating from the nonprofit’s social enterprise program, 96 percent of those women are still employed. And even now, with $2 million in annual revenue across a vast product line, that first 10-bean soup is still the company’s top seller; the Women’s Bean Project has sold more than one million packs of it over the past 30 years.
Even as she got older, Eyre stayed involved with the business. Ryan tells of Eyre, maybe in her early 80s at the time, riding a bike there when she could no longer drive. And when she arrived, Eyre had a way of connecting with the program participants in a way no one else could. Always engaging and magnetic, she had an incredible talent of connecting with women from all walks of life.
“We all look around and see things we don’t like, but not all of us do something about it,” Ryan says. “And that to me is the thing that defines Jossy. We honor her legacy every day when we go to work.”
Mike Adams was a cultivated man. He was deeply read in poetry, American literature and ecology. He never forgot where he came from—Homestead, PA. He was proud of his college years working in a steel mill like many of his slavic family. He showed me Homestead where Frick called in the gun thugs while Carnegie was in Scotland. There in the Museum a copy of the last letter Frick sent to Andrew---”I'll see you in Hell.” Mike learned to swim in a pool below a Carnegie Library, but he never bought philanthropy cancelling out historic crimes.
You see, Mike understood “the hidden injuries of class” and he brought that deep understanding to every role he played during his time in the Romero Troupe. But more than that, he brought a joy in being alive and able to climb mountains, hear Buddy Guy and other great music and to love his wife Claire and his many friends. I miss him every day and fancy, in some way, he's still present and lending a hand.
My first memory of Helen Powers in the Romero Troupe was working on our scene about the Leadville miners' strike. This powerful scene started with three or four dead miners scattered across the stage, with several other miners carrying the bodies one by one over to one side, where each was covered with a sheet, with a young woman keening in loud sobs next to one of the dead bodies. A few other women watched the scene. Helen, already in her eighties, was the first to speak, in a loud clear voice and heavy Irish brogue: “That makes th-u-rr-teen. How many more arrh there?” and a few lines later, “My God, Michael, why did they attack the mine? Didn't they know the guards would be waitin' for them?”
Helen loved those powerful brief lines, and always made the most of them, working hard to commit them to memory and delivering them with impeccable timing. She was a natural actor, and the communal creative process of the Troupe along with its feeling like belonging in a supportive family really nourished her soul. As we developed different story lines over the years there were many powerful moments created specifically for Helen's unique stage presence, and she gladly rose to the occasion. I think especially of the elder activist in the San Luis valley when all the men in the meeting with the Denver attorneys hesitated to sign legal documents seeking to reclaim their stolen rights to access the large land-grant property that they had used for generations for hunting, wood-gathering and other purposes. Helen stepped forward from the back of the room, telling them “If you men don't have the cojones to sign, get out of my way, I'll sign it!” And her extensive role as Hope, along with fellow homeless woman Faith, as they welcomed a young man into their street community connected to a radical past of many struggles for justice. At one point as they described their work Helen said “They can't bullshit us!” When the young man caught on to what these women were about, he said “You're troublemakers!” and they replied “No, we're love-makers!” which always got a big round of applause.
Helen loved getting to know the stream of young people coming through the troupe, and formed many strong friendships, though she had a hard time remembering names. I live close to Helen's apartment building, and often gave her a ride to and from rehearsals. Over the years, especially after the early years of written scripts, it became clear she wasn't hearing everything and sometimes missed what the stories were about. It was also true that she lived by a strong sense of justice and right and wrong, so sometimes when there was some ambiguity in a character or subtlety in the “moral” lesson of a story, she'd be a little dissatisfied with it. When we acted out the story of Frenchy, a transgender man who lived a fascinating life in early Colorado histoy, Helen played the part of a nun in a Catholic hospital in Trinidad, where Frenchy was sent by a doctor after his genital identity was discovered. Like many Romero stories, the few details in this one came from rather sparse newspape stories from the early 1900s. Frenchy was forced
to wear dresses, but after his death the nuns followed through on a promise that he could be buried in his long pants. Helen insisted on adding a set of lines for the nun eloquetly endorsing his right to live out his “true identity”, which seemed a little doubtful given the little history we had access to. Helen also thought it was part of the Romero culture that every participant should have meaningful lines in whatever story we were presenting, despite the obvious experience many of us had playing dead bodies or other (silent) bit parts. It was also part of her value system that our acted-out stories should bring a clear, important social and political message to people, and on the way home after a performance or the next time we got together she would often express satisfaction on how well-received our message had been, or that she thought we really brought the audience a sense of hope or inspired them to take action. And partly because we (perhaps less confidently) shared that hope, and mostly because that was part of what we loved about Helen, we didn't contradict her or dispute her optimistic assessment of our impact. Like her, we treasured being part of the Romero Troupe, the fellowship of our circle, the fun and excitement of the theater, and the shared values of social justice and human dignity.
Helen began acting at the age of 80 and acted up to the end of her life . She was a small women with a strong powerful voice . Being part of our community brought her much joy and pride. Helen once said “Being kind is the most important thing there is”. She had an unshakable faith in the goodness of the human race . She inspired so many people young and old.
Love you Helen
Aris joined the Romero Troupe while he was a student of mine at the University of Colorado Denver. Aris was a presence anywhere. Standing 6' 5" the former minor league pitcher with one of the deepest voices I have ever heard could be an intimidating figure. Nonetheless, Aris was a profoundly gentle giant, a young man who cared deeply about the world and helped anyone who asked for it. He played a sanitation worker in our skit about the 1968 strike in Memphis that led to the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Aris's role was a worker who was skeptical about the wisdom of organizing a union, only to become a leader and champion in that effort. In playing this role, he deftly demonstrated how easily we fall into a life of fear-based limitations. I can still hear his deep voice castigating a fellow worker who was complaining about working conditions, telling him, "just be glad that you have a job!" Aris passed away tragically before he saw his 30th birthday, just as MLK Jr. died as a young man. He is deeply missed
Rita became a great inspiration for me over the past twenty years as she led the fight in Pueblo to take down the Columbus statue. We began performing Rita's story in 2018, and were able to perform it for the 2019 Pedagogy and Theater of the Oppressed conference, which was in Pueblo that year. She was a legend in Pueblo, leading a counter-rally at the statue every October when the Sons of Italy led their ceremony at the statue. Each year, I brought students to witness the moment, to reflect on the meaning of settler-colonialism, and to learn from Rita's gentle, dignified leadership style. Black Lives Matter inspired Rita to move the rallies to every Sunday. Last November, I was in Pueblo on a Sunday and stopped by the rally to see Rita. It would be the last time that I ever saw her. She contracted covid over the holidays and died in January, 2021. This is a poem that I wrote about her published in La Cucaracha.
I found my way to the weekly gathering at Pueblo's Columbus statue
Sat with Rita on a windy day at a folding card table
She used hand sanitizer as paper weights keeping the stack of La Cucaracha papers from taking flight
While a bearded man with a MAGA hat across the barricades yelled about a stolen election
Rita leaned over to tell me something...
We're going to suspend the protests for now, she explained through the wind.
covid is terrible here
We're just pausing until after the holidays
I watched young activists raise their voices to the Pueblo Old Guard
A Lakota man sang of sorrow
and Rita called everyone together
We're going to take a break, she called out
just until after the holidays
We need to keep everyone safe from covid
To be clear: we are not stopping this effort
We'll never stop
I waited to tell Rita goodbye
Almost drifted away, but felt a need to say something to her
"Rita, I think you taught me what it means to be Irish. I love you Rita."
She handed me a stack of copies of La Cucaracha
Here, give these to the Romero Troupe