Barbara Finch: Passion for social justice issues drives co-founder of ‘Women’s Voices’ group

William Motchan
Barbara Finch with one of the gun locks her organization hands out at as part of the “Lock it for Love” campaign. Photo: Bill Motchan

By Margaret Gillerman, Special to the Jewish Light

Barbara Finch grew up a Presbyterian in West Virginia, the daughter of a lawyer and community volunteer.

Her path led eventually to St. Louis, and at 56, she made a life-changing decision: she converted to Judaism after learning about the Jewish concept of “tikkun olam,” the Hebrew words for repairing the world. 

Finch earns her Unsung Hero Award for her volunteer work with Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice — one of her many voluntary activities over the years.

“I am really attracted to the whole concept of tikkun olam,” Finch said. “It was new to me when I heard about it, and I was impressed by the concept of how I or a small group of people could make things better.

“I have never regretted becoming a Jew by choice,” said Finch, now 81. “It has been a blessing.”

Finch co-founded Women’s Voices in 2005 to educate people about social injustice issues and advocate for change. Membership now tops 500. 

Gun control. The environment. Affordable health care. Economic justice. Human rights. Racial justice. Reproductive justice.

“Those are our core issues right now,” Finch said.

Women’s Voices sponsors free public lectures by experts on issues.

“We go on field trips, we protest, we march in parades like the Pride parade,” said Finch, who belongs to Central Reform Congregation. “We talk about how discrimination affects people of color.”

The group has no religious affiliation and, despite its name, all are welcome of any gender, race or age.

Before Women’s Voices, Finch worked as a newspaper reporter and later a public relations executive for hospitals, universities and other non-profits.

She writes poetry and newspaper commentaries, taught creative writing and won awards on the way. She enjoys yoga and the arts.

She married John Finch, her high school sweetheart, about 61 years ago in their hometown of Charleston, W.Va. The Finches, who live in Clayton, have two adult children and two grandchildren.

Finch founded Women’s Voices with three friends who had volunteered with her for the failed presidential campaign of John Kerry. 

“After that, we looked at each other and asked, ‘What are we going to do?’ ” she recalls. Co-founders are Joanne Kelly and Ann Ruger, both in education; and Ruth Ann Cioci, whose passion is the environment.

At the time, politicians were talking about privatizing Social Security. Many in the country lacked affordable health care. Schools were failing children. 

“There was a lot to be upset about, and we got angry,” Finch said. “I do not recommend anger as a good place to do things from but it can get you started.”

Monthly programs grew from about 20 people to about 100. The organization moved twice to larger quarters – usually meeting now at the Heights Community Center in Richmond Heights. Topics vary month to month.

On June 13, Women’s Voices will launch “Visionary Voices” at the Ethical Society with nationally known activist Brittany Packnett as speaker.

One of Women’s Voices’ most successful campaigns is “Lock it for Love,” started by Finch and others after the Sandy Hook massacre. Women’s Voices hands out gunlocks at health fairs and community and school events, focusing on zip codes where children are at greatest risk. Women’s Voices demonstrates how to use the locks and gives other safety instructions.

 “In St. Louis, thousands and thousands of homes have guns, and many of the homes have children and grandchildren,” Finch said. “Many of the homes do not have gun locks.”

An active Racial Justice committee, which she co-chairs, spun off of the group’s racial justice book club after the events of Ferguson.

Finch’s interests in writing and volunteering probably started in childhood when her mother wrote and edited a magazine. After graduating high school, Finch attended Agnes Scott College, a Presbyterian girls’ school, in Decatur, Ga. There, she said, “I learned to ask questions and question authority and to feel like I had a voice in the world.”

Finch switched after two years to the University of Kentucky in Lexington to major in journalism.

After she married John Finch, then in the Air Force, the couple moved to Texas. When her husband was dispatched to Turkey, she returned to West Virginia to work for a TV station. Over the years, she worked at three newspapers — in San Angelo and Houston, Texas, and in Marietta, Ohio.

“You get newspapers in your blood,” she said.

The Finches moved to St. Louis in 1965 for her husband’s job with the Defense Mapping Agency, and she earned a master’s degree at Washington University.

Finch’s drawl still comes through in conversation — and so does her sense of humor. Her creativity shines. Her main seder plate included a shoelace along with the charoses, bitter herb and other traditional Passover symbols. The shoelace symbolized struggles of Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States at the southern border. Authorities sometimes take away shoelaces before placing asylum seekers in detention.

 “Authorities are afraid they’re going to use them to commit suicide,” Finch said. “Why would anyone walk thousands of miles from Guatemala to El Paso and then commit suicide with shoelaces?”

Judaism was not Finch’s only stop along her spiritual journey. After growing up Presbyterian, she became Unitarian and then “nothing.” 

 In 1995, she took an “Introduction to Judaism” class at Temple Israel. She had not intended to become a Jew but only to broaden her knowledge of another faith.

“It was that course that made me decide to become a Jew,” Finch said. “I realized that this is what I believe.” She became a bat mitzvah at Temple Israel when she was 62.

Batya Abramson-Goldstein, retired executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, praises Finch for her “exemplary volunteer leadership” and says collaboration is her keystone.

Finch helped establish partnerships with the JCRC and other organizations, particularly in the areas of racial justice, response to hunger and the prevention of gun violence, Abramson-Goldstein said.

“When I think of Barbara I think of the words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslow who said, ‘If you believe breaking is possible, believe fixing is possible.’ Barbara lives by these words.” 

Barbara Finch 

Age: 81

Family: Married to John Finch, two children, two grandchildren

Home: Clayton

Fun Fact: She married her high school sweetheart.