Barbara Russum, People’s World production manager, retires
Barbara Russum at work in the People's World editorial offices in Chicago in 2011. | Courtesy of Barbara Russum

The end of 2021 marks a transition for People’s World as Barbara Russum, longtime staff member, retires from the paper. Though she officially joined the production team in March 2003, Barbara has been a fixture in the People’s World community for decades—something that’s not about to change just because she’s retired.

Barbara and People’s World (or Daily World, as it was then called) first met a half-century ago at a rally to free political prisoner Angela Davis in 1971. Barbara worked in the Chicago Loop at the time, for the Social Security Administration, and happened upon the rally purely by chance.

“An elderly Black gentleman wearing a suit and tie offered me the paper, and we chatted a while,” she remembers. “Other papers were also handed out, but the Daily World was the only real newspaper. The others I looked at went in the trash.”

Born in Easton, Md., and raised in Joliet, Ill., Barbara has spent most of her working life contributing to one progressive enterprise or another in the Chicagoland area. In the mid-’70s, she was assistant director of Public Art Workshop, a neighborhood art center in Chicago, where she met muralist and educator Mark Rogovin, whom Barbara lists as one of several major influences on her.

Distributing the World became a part of her political organizing work during that period, too.

Barbara Russum as a college student. | Courtesy of Barbara Russum

“I handed out thousands of papers at rallies, at plant gates, on neighborhood routes,” Barbara recalls. “I remember the bundles of papers we loaded on buses, in car trunks, into shopping bags. I remember getting up at the crack of dawn to head to the Southside steel mill plant gates.”

Distribution teams would post themselves at the gates at shift change, getting the news that mattered into the hands of thousands of workers each day. Bleary-eyed and walking slowly out of the mill, workers would stop to get a paper and “sometimes offer us a few coins.” The World teams “always accepted donations but never required them. Once in a while, on cold mornings, we were brought cups of coffee.”

Whenever buses packed with activists were heading anywhere for events—be it D.C., Detroit, or North Carolina—Barbara was there, with the World in tow. And carried along were banners and signs produced at the Public Art Workshop, “for Chile solidarity, anti-apartheid solidarity, civil rights, disarmament, peace…We even constructed parade floats, including two that Angela Davis rode on!”

Angela Davis rides in Chicago’s Bud Billiken Day Parade on a float that Barbara Russum helped build. | People’s World Archives

From 1978 to 1991, she served as a manager for Imported Publications, a company that distributed books and Marxist-Leninist literature from the Soviet Union and other socialist countries in English and Spanish to retail outlets and readers in the United States. Once the USSR was dismantled and the flow of affordable books that had previously been shared with the world ceased, Imported Publications couldn’t survive.

Barbara went on to work in the finance departments of Planned Parenthood and another publishing company based in Chicago. But she couldn’t tear herself away from progressive books and spent much of her time working as the part-time manager of Modern Bookstore on Halsted Street just south of downtown.

Modern Bookstore advertised itself as having “the Midwest’s widest selection of Marxist literature on Black history, the labor movement, women’s rights, the socialist world, Africa, philosophy, economics, literature and more” in languages ranging from “English to Spanish to Russian.”

From 1978 to 1991, Barbara served as a manager for Imported Publications, a company that distributed books and Marxist-Leninist literature from the Soviet Union and other socialist countries in English and Spanish to retail outlets and readers in the United States.

It was there that Pepe Lozano, who would later work alongside Barbara at People’s World, first remembers meeting her. “I was too young to drive, and my mom would take me to the bookstore on Halsted. Barb was always the person to greet us when we walked in to purchase the history and Marxist literature.” He recalls her kindness and the smile she always wore.

Like dozens of progressive and socialist bookshops around the country, Modern Bookstore eventually became a casualty of the capitalist triumphalism of the ‘90s, the explosion of the big corporate bookstore chains, and changing political priorities. It closed in 2003.

That’s the year Barbara joined the staff at the People’s Weekly World, then still a print newspaper appearing every Saturday. The paper’s editorial offices had just moved from New York to Chicago when Barbara was hired. Since then, her work has been “mostly behind the scenes.” Barbara had a hand in thousands of published articles, and she deserves credit for helping bring them to readers even when it wasn’t her name in the byline.

The nature of the work has changed over the almost 20 years Barbara’s been on the PW team. In the print days, she and the production team “edited, vetted, designed, and produced pages for the printer.” Though it had an internet presence since 1994, the People’s World was re-launched as a fully online daily news publication in 2010. After the transition, Barbara still carried out a lot of the same tasks, but now she was doing them for the webpage as a production manager—helping to edit and format articles, sourcing and selecting photos, and doing the technical work of posting PW content up on the web.

As office manager in the Chicago editorial office, for many people around the United States, Barbara was also “the voice of People’s World.” Washington Bureau Chief Mark Gruenberg fondly recalls the pre-pandemic days when the phone system at PW routed everyone through the main number at Barbara’s desk. Whenever he would call, he had the “pleasant experience of hearing her cheery voice every time.”

The last print edition of People’s World, published Dec. 19, 2009. Barbara Russum is third from left in the staff photo on the front page. | People’s World Archives

The importance of the paper’s Spanish-language section, Mundo Popular, was and continues to be something Barbara feels strongly about. Lozano recalls that “Barb made sure Spanish articles were readily available to readers—and not just about Latin America, but Spanish content that addressed local, national, and international events and important news about working-class struggles, victories, and challenges.” (Even as she prepares for retirement, Barbara has made the future of Mundo something PW editors have to give attention to.)

As the year closes out, Barbara finishes her official, paid time with People’s World, but she won’t be leaving. She will join, once again, the legion of volunteer contributors, donors, and supporters across the country that keep the paper going. “I did some writing over the years,” she says, “I want to get back to that.”

Though retirement is the time when others pay tribute to you and recognize your contributions, Barbara insists she received more from the experience working at the World than she ever gave. “Almost everything I learned to do at People’s World, I learned from my co-workers,” she says.

Something she’ll miss is preparing meals for the various meetings and schools held in the paper’s Chicago office. If the staff and volunteers are lucky, perhaps she will still drop in to feed them occasionally—and suggest a book for them to read!

Asked to sum up her time with the paper, Barbara opts to paraphrase the words of Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath:

“We’ll be ever’where — wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, we’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, we’ll be there. We’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build — why, we’ll be there!”

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Due to the resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic, an in-person event recognizing Barbara Russum has been postponed to early 2022.

Tributes from a few of Barbara Russum’s co-workers:

John Wojcik, Editor-in-Chief: Peoples World is what it is today because of the life-long dedication of Barbara Russum. Countless people from across the country and around the world have interacted with her—to them she is the voice of the World. When they call or write or text or email, she is right there at the front line facilitating the exchange of information. There is nothing she could not do—from writing and editing to research and to systems management. She fields complaints and problems and comes up with solutions. She will be greatly missed, but our memories of working with her will be cherished forever.

Chauncey K. Robinson, Social Media Editor: Barbara’s love for PW and its contribution to the working class struggle has always been inspiring. The way she loves the publication and the work it does highlights and reinvigorates one to remember what it’s all about, and why we do this work. She’s been such an essential puzzle piece to getting it in front of the thousands who read us each day, and we’re all better for knowing her.

C.J. Atkins, Managing Editor: Barbara’s dedication to this paper and making sure it appears every day is unmatched. If someone calls in sick, or an emergency article needs to be posted in the middle of the night, or an egregious error has to be corrected right away—who you gonna call? Barbara Russum. She will pick up the phone and immediately come to your aid. She possesses an exhaustive knowledge of almost any socialist book ever published—and in a great many languages, too. And she remembers pretty much everything PW has ever published in the past two decades. Whether you’re a researcher or an editor, she’s someone you need to know. But it’s not just the technical and production work that makes Barbara such a valuable person. It’s also her humor, friendliness, and commitment. She’s certainly a comrade to many people far and wide.

Mark Gruenberg, Washington Bureau Chief: When I joined the staff, we still had the old phone system where everyone was routed through the main number…which gave me the pleasant experience of hearing Barbara’s cheery voice every time I called. I always looked forward to that, and to meeting her in person…which I did quite quickly because the first thing Wojcik asked me after offering the position, and me accepting it, was “Can you come to Chicago?” (My answer was “When’s the next plane to Midway?”)

Needless to say, I have always looked forward to talking with Barbara, with her combination of extensive knowledge of the Party’s history, terrific posting skills—which I do not possess—and her humor. I am sure we will stay in touch, since somehow I cannot see her totally walking away from a lifelong commitment to People’s World and CPUSA. But happy retirement, give yourself time to smell the roses, so to speak, with family and friends.

Blake Skylar, Production Manager: I have worked with Barbara since I first joined People’s World, and she immediately proved friendly, patient, and helpful. Her years of experience were invaluable at a time when I was first learning the ins and outs of production management. She has thoroughly and consistently been reliable, trustworthy, and dedicated, and ultimately a great colleague who has left an indelible mark upon this publication and the many friends and staff members who have worked alongside her.

Melissa Parks, Print Edition Coordinator: I know if she was at the office, various holiday and Christmas decorations would be displayed through out the building. She is always very thoughtful and willing to assist me when I needed her help. I appreciate that she always thanked us for all we do. I am not sure which she loves more, flowers or cats. Enjoy your retirement!

Eric Gordon, Copyeditor: One of my functions at PW is to review articles for corrections—spelling, formatting, etc. I can always rely on Barbara to make them promptly and cheerfully. She has been a joy to work with and I will miss her—though I hope she lurks around for quite a while longer and continues to contribute in different ways. By the way, I think she doesn’t even appreciate herself how perceptive and graceful a writer she is when she sets her mind to it. More articles, please!

Roberta Wood, Senior Editor: Barbara lives and breathes People’s World. Her attention to detail, knowledge of publishing gained over many years, and expertise have helped make the paper the professional publication it is today.

John Bachtell, President, Long View Publishing Co.: It’s been a great pleasure to work with Barb for literally decades. Barb is one of the many unsung and deeply committed sheroes of People’s World and our movement. She’s an integral part of making things happen and doing it with joy and in a way that appear seamless to the outside observer. Happy retirement, Barb!

Pepe Lozano, former PW staff member: Barb will always be the heart of People’s World and the Chicago editorial offices. She will forever be a staple, a kind-hearted and warm yet fierce fighter for working class justice, equal rights, and a champion for peace. She embodies the hope and love for a more just and safer world for all people. I wish her all the very best and thank her for her friendship, mentorship, love, and care. Enjoy your retirement comrade! Peace and solidarity!


CONTRIBUTOR

C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. C.J. Atkins es el editor gerente de People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People's World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.

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