Remembering Jane Barney

By: Avalon Housing

Jane Barney was the founding Board President of Avalon Housing in 1992.  She was 78 then, and had already led an inspirational life filled with love for family and years of activism for social and economic justice and civil rights.  It was my incredible good fortune to learn from her, work alongside her, and be her friend for 26 more years as we set out on the path to end homelessness in Washtenaw County through supportive housing.

Jane was a perfect role model and mentor for me. We shared a common passion and sense of outrage at the state of the world, but she managed to maintain her optimism, avoid judgment and find the good in all people – things I am still working on!  She spoke her mind and had a delightful sense of irreverence – but was always strategic, thoughtful and diplomatic. Needless to say she was able to parlay her age and social graces for full effectiveness when challenging the powers that be!

As Avalon’s Board President and Executive Director, respectively, Jane and I spent hours together planning and processing Avalon’s early years.  We shared a common distaste for fundraising, but gamely set up meetings and trotted off to woo developers who we hoped would be natural allies. We put on our fancy clothes and very carefully carried the largest checks we had ever seen to complex and lengthy closings as everyone struggled to figure out how to make supportive housing work. Thinking back I keep remembering how much we laughed about our new careers as real estate developers, feeling like imposters!

But being in unchartered territory did not frighten or deter Jane, and she helped instill in all of us a sense of courage, openness, and a long-term view.  Along with our comrades and colleagues Michael Appel, Ellen Rabinowitz and Bob Gillett, we met at Jane’s house every month for almost ten years over coffee and her most excellent chocolate chip cookies to discuss how to get more affordable housing in Ann Arbor, how to educate the community and how to make Washtenaw County a leader in ending homelessness.  These advocacy and visioning discussions were invaluable to Avalon’s growth and vital to our strategic planning.  They were also essential to our mental health – more laughter!

Throughout her long and active life, Jane worked tirelessly to end war, to end racism, to improve the lives of seniors, to expand health care opportunities for African Americans, and to end homelessness. I was thrilled to be invited to participate in an anti-racism group she started in the late 90’s with other community leaders. Jane’s generous spirit and enthusiasm touched so many in our community and I believe she made a tangible difference in the lives of poor people and people of color in Washtenaw County.  Jane was, of course, extremely humble, and would always shy away from honors the community was hoping to bestow upon her.  Her humility, sense of justice and her love for all people helped instill these values in Avalon’s culture.

In addition to her profound contributions to Avalon, I will also be eternally grateful for Jane’s friendship and personal support.  In my early years as a single mom, she was a great friend to my wild son Dylan – eagerly following and consulting on his development and building a relationship that continued throughout his teenage years.  Jane and I had so many wonderful times together and she taught me so much – knowing her was one of the great pleasures and honors of my life.  She lived 104 years filled with love, kindness and a zest for activism that helped shape me, Avalon, and our community.  What a tremendous gift!

You can read Jane’s obituary here.

By Carole McCabe, former Executive Director, Avalon Housing