Jennifer Flynn Walker, now an organizer at the Center for Popular Democracy, remembers when she went back to work in 2014 at VOCAL-NY, which advocates for low-income people affected by HIV, homelessness, the drug war, incarceration, and other challenges. She was charged with going door-to-door in the city’s single-room-occupancy hotels to try to get residents, often coming off the streets, to become VOCAL-NY members, joining others at rallies calling for funding and policies to support health and housing.
“Elizabeth said to me, ‘OK, you and me, we’re gonna go door-knocking, and I’m gonna see if you’ve got what it takes to talk to real people,’” recalled Flynn Walker. By the end of the day, “She said, ‘OK, you’ve got it,’ and we had a great time working together after that. She appreciated that we shared a queer identity. She demanded loyalty and respect.”
Flynn Walker was talking about longtime VOCAL-NY organizer Elizabeth Owens, who died at age 60 the weekend of Sept. 19 to 21 of unclear causes, likely associated with long-term health issues, according to VOCAL co-executive director Jeremy Saunders.
Her death, which followed a period of hospitalization, prompted an outpouring of grief and tributes from current and former colleagues on social media, nearly all of whom noted her charisma and ferocious work ethic, reflected in the fact that, on the subway home from rallies and events, when everyone else was gossiping and decompressing, Owens would be working the cars, recruiting new VOCAL members and donors.
She was also widely remembered for her signature line, “Thank you for coming to work today,” which she would say to everyone from politicians to fellow activists.
“It wasn’t just a greeting,” former VOCAL colleague AK Saini wrote on Facebook. “It was her whole ethos and way of being in the world. It was an expression of gratitude and, perhaps even more so, expectation that you will show up to do the work today and every day.”
Owens was also well-known for calling herself nearly everyone’s “sister from another mother”—a nod, many said, to the fact that she saw her work as much about building family as about pushing for better funding and policy. Said Saunders: “She strongly believed that we had to be a family for one another, especially if we’d been abandoned by our biological families or stigmatized by larger society.”
According to Saunders, Owens grew up in public housing in Brooklyn and found herself on the streets of the West Village and Chelsea at a young age, taking care of not only herself but others whom she’d take under her wing. “Every time you thought you’d heard every one of her stories, there was another one,” Saunders said. “She did what she had to to survive, and to take others in.”
Activist Benjamin Heim Shepard, who conducted an oral history interview with Owens in 2016, said that they would joke about past days when Owens was a dancer, and Shepard a patron, at the storied Times Square sex emporium Show World (even though they did not get to know each other until years later, at rallies and protests).
“She gave everybody hugs,” recalled Shepard. “That was her thing. She practiced harm reduction at its finest, helping drug users stay healthy and rejecting shame.” He added that it was after his daughter met Owens—who had hepatitis C from her years as an injection-drug user and who advocated fiercely for hep C treatment—that his daughter wrote a school paper on hep C drug pricing.
Owens came to VOCAL a decade ago as an outreach worker and soon became a full-time organizer, according to a tribute to her that VOCAL posted on Facebook. “We created a new title for her, called the GROW organizer, which stood for Grassroots Organizing to Win,” said Saunders. “She was constantly mobilizing people for actions to end the AIDS epidemic, homelessness, the drug war, and mass incarceration. It was always Elizabeth who made sure that every staffer signed a card when it was somebody’s birthday.”
According to many, Owens really thrived on VOCAL’s “She’s So Vocal” campaign, which aimed to nurture and lift up female activists in a community where men often became the front-and-center stars. “She took that idea from just a gala event to an actual project,” said Flynn Walker.
Remembered Shirlene Cooper, who preceded Owens as the leading Black female activist at VOCAL: “She was so excited about putting that campaign together just for women. She gave 100% if anybody ever needed help. She was like the superhero of VOCAL to me. You know how when you work from sun-up to sundown because you know that nobody else but you will do the job you want done? That was Elizabeth. She’d tell me she was tired, and I’d tell her to ask for a sabbatical, but she just couldn’t stop.”
Cooper said that Owens was a member of the women’s art-therapy group that Cooper started a few years ago with a grant from the nonprofit Visual AIDS, which supports artists living with HIV/AIDS and their allies. (The group has gone virtual in the COVID era.)
“The moment you met Elizabeth, her energy jumped out at you,” said Cooper. “It was her fierce way of organizing, her tenacity. She reminded me of when I started organizing. You get handed the torch, and you run with it and make sure that whatever needs to be done gets done. She believed in hard work.”
Owens was also the point person for VOCAL’s phone banking, well-known for being able to turn out a robust crowd at nearly every rally. “That was her domain,” said Flynn Walker.
Jason Walker, now an organizer with Health GAP, also remembers going out and knocking on doors with Owens when he first came to VOCAL in 2013. “She was very warm and welcoming, very focused on our community,” he said. “She taught me how to connect and talk to people. For folks living in shelters, drug users, homeless people living with HIV who’ve lost their own families, she made them feel like we were all family and that we had to hold one another accountable. She was always the first one at meetings so she could greet people. Same thing with when we’d book a bus to Albany to lobby. If the bus left at 6 a.m., she’d be there at 4 a.m. because she knew that this was a chance for people to get out of the shelters for a day and do something active.”
On a few occasions, said Saunders, the two of them would hang out in the Village. “She’d buy me a couple nips, and we’d sit on Christopher Street, and she’d reminisce about the good old days.”
But it was rare when Owens relaxed. “She never slowed down,” said Jaron Benjamin, an organizer with Housing Works now who worked with her at VOCAL in the mid-2010s. “She had an unbelievable drive. I’ve never been prouder of anybody who I worked with.”
According to Saunders, even recently, during the COVID-19 lockdown, Owens was working tirelessly from her home in the Bronx—and then even in the hospital—constantly calling VOCAL members to see how they were doing, give them COVID info, and see if they needed anything.
He added that Owens would be memorialized on Saturday, Sept. 26—which would have been her 61st birthday—on the West Side piers, where she once spent so much time.