Love in Action: Reflecting on 50 years in community with Ernestine Nettles

On the first day of Black History Month, we are delighted to feature and honor Ernestine Nettles, who this Christmas celebrated 50 years of service—not only to GLIDE, but to her community in Oakland, the Civil Rights Movement, gender equality and voting rights.

Ernestine Nettles with Rev. Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani
Ernestine Nettles with Rev. Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani.

Ernestine is a beloved pillar of the holiday feasts GLIDE organizes for its community. In fact, Ernestine is well known among holiday volunteers for being the first person to arrive on Thanksgiving morning, usually around 5:30 am. A couple of years ago she discovered that some of the younger volunteers had started a competition among themselves to see who could beat Ernestine to GLIDE on Thanksgiving Day!

Jennifer Gentile, a Holiday Volunteer Captain for 16 years, has many fond memories of working with Ernestine.

“I have extraordinarily strong feelings about Ernestine as a person, as my friend, and as the first person I see every Thanksgiving morning because she is our team’s early bird anchor. She is a phenomenal woman who truly has dedicated her life to serving others and fighting for civil rights, racial justice and gender equality.”

Jennifer mentioned that despite Ernestine’s years of working at GLIDE, this was the first holiday that she had her photo taken with Jan and Cecil.

“She’s very humble, and generally avoids any attention and certainly the spotlight, but 50 years of volunteering? That’s something!” says Jennifer.

A local justice hero

A committed activist and changemaker immersed in the Civil Rights Movement, Ernestine began volunteering with GLIDE in 1968 after meeting Janice Mirikitani and Rev. Cecil Williams while they were campaigning for the right to vote for 18-year-old Americans, and for girls’ and women’s right to wear pants to public school.

To have a cause that has stood the test of time and remained true to the initial dream is truly a blessing in these days.

“Cecil worked vigorously with the youth. Of course, he himself was young at the time! We got the legislation passed for the 18-year-olds’ right to vote, and we also went through the school boards and got the girls’ right to wear pants,” she says.

Due to their overlapping work, Ernestine has many recollections of Janice and Cecil over the years, and great insight into the trajectory of GLIDE’s programs.

“One day, Cecil and Jan were at my parents’ house and my dad said to Cecil, ‘Young man what is it you really want to do?’

“Cecil’s response was that he wanted GLIDE to be a place where anyone in San Francisco could come and get a decent meal and not have to go to bed hungry. That was his dream. And needless to say, the dream has come true.”

“In his quest to do that, everything else has happened—all the social services developed—and that was because of his ability to use funds for what they were meant for. To have a cause that has stood the test of time and remained true to the initial dream is truly a blessing in these days. I think that everyone has gravitated to GLIDE because it has always done what it said it would do and it was always a welcoming community.”

GLIDE Co-Founder Janice Mirikitani recalls working alongside Ernestine during pivotal social justice campaigns.

“I remember her having an enormous amount of energy. She was a firecracker! And very committed to justice issues. It wasn’t enough for her to just talk about it. She did a lot of work around the causes that she believed in. I’m really happy that she believed in GLIDE,” Janice said. “She put so much energy and time into volunteering for us. She is a very compassionate and giving individual.”

One of the things I tell young people is that when you’re looking at the issues and you’re looking at those candidates, make sure they have the right consciousness.

Besides her consistent volunteer work with GLIDE, Ernestine is highly involved in her local community. She is currently a Contract Compliance Officer with the City of Oakland, where she works to make opportunities available to small and very small local businesses. But creating opportunities and paving the way for others is not just her profession; it is truly her life’s work.

“I’ve always been a part of social justice movements; back then we called it civil rights! I’ve always worked in equal opportunity programs.”

She is one of the Vice Presidents of the Oakland League of Women Voters; one of the largest leagues in the country. Ernestine registered voters at the Women’s March and is passionate about transparency and responsibility when it comes to political fundraising.

“One of the things I tell young people is that when you’re looking at the issues and you’re looking at those candidates, make sure they have the right consciousness. Because doing the work that Cecil and Jan have done and that those at GLIDE do on a daily basis is a consciousness. It’s not something you do for money, per say, and I think everybody should make a decent living doing what they do, but you have to have the right consciousness.”

I think everybody should be responsible for some one who is less fortunate than them at some point along their journey. Like GLIDE and Cecil preach, we can’t be judgmental.

Additionally, Ernestine helped the late Mrs. Ethel Bradley, wife to Tom Bradley who was the first Black mayor of Los Angeles, build the Tom and Ethel Bradley Foundation. She works with Charles Blanchard in the National Association of Black Veterans, and she has worked closely with former Mayor of Oakland and House Representative the late Ron Dellums. In fact, Ernestine was Dellums’ very first intern in Washington D.C. She is also still connected with one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s aides, JT Johnson, of Atlanta, and this past summer she joined JT and his wife on a trip to Alabama.

“I had never walked across the bridge in Selma. It meant a lot to me to have that experience with JT. I flew into Atlanta, we went to Selma, and then to Montgomery, where we went to the lynching museum.”

Still more, she is involved with the MLK Jr. Freedom Center at Merritt College, and sponsors children to play Little League Baseball in Oakland. Ernestine at one point also took in a homeless couple, after seeing the numbers of unhoused people in Oakland rise year after year.

“I gave them a place to stay, I gave them a job. When they left my home, they went to another home, and now they’re sustaining themselves. I think everybody should be responsible for some one who is less fortunate than them at some point along their journey. Like GLIDE and Cecil preach, we can’t be judgmental. When I look at people who are homeless or who have substance use issues I always say, ‘Except for the grace of God, there could go I.’”

Ernestine speaking at GLIDE Church during Christmas Celebration.

Paving the way

When asked about her life of service, Ernestine emphasizes the knowledge that every-day people have the ability and the duty to challenge unjust laws, and her belief that “to whom much is given, much is expected and required by God.”

While her family was not wealthy, she says her parents taught her that you can make a difference by sharing what you have with those around you who are in need.

“When I was a child, there was a family that lived in our neighborhood that had just moved from Tennessee. The father was having trouble getting work. That Saturday my mother and I went shopping and my mother put two boxes in the trunk of the car. When we were going home we stopped at our neighbors’ house and asked the mother to send one of her sons out to get a box of groceries. The lady was standing on the porch crying, holding her youngest child in her arms. She called my mother later and thanked her and said, ‘You know, if it hadn’t been for you we didn’t know what we were going to feed our children tonight.’

“My parents taught me that every generation is there to make it easier for the next. I have no children, I’ve never been married, but I feel I have an obligation to do something to make it a little better for those who come behind me.”