Ellen David Friedman was born in New York City on May 7, 1952. Since she was 12 years old, she has been a passionate activist. Ellen grew up in the predominantly Jewish suburb of Roslyn Heights, New York. Her parents, first-generation Americans, described themselves as atheists, yet the family belonged to a Reform synagogue and participated in Jewish culture. After graduating from Harvard University in 1974 with a degree in political science, Ellen moved to Vermont. While working for Orange County Mental Health, she met her husband Stuart, a social worker, and they were married in 1980. They have one son Eli and are long-time members of Beth Jacob Synagogue in Montpelier. Ellen worked for the teachers' union, Vermont NEA, organizing school support staff for over twenty years. She also volunteered many hours for progressive causes such as The Livable Wage Campaign and The Vermont Workers Center. She was a founding member of the Vermont Progressive Party and served as its vice-chairperson. Eli's interest in China and the conditions of migrant workers in sweatshops inspired Ellen and Stuart to visit China themselves. They have been dividing their time between work in the States and teaching at Sun Yat-Sen University, located in Guangzhou.
Ellen discusses her family background, immigration history, Jewish identity and beliefs, and childhood memories. She traces her involvement in progressive politics to the influence of her parents, particularly her father, who started his career with Jewish Family Services and eventually served as the executive director of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) under Jimmy Carter. Ellen recalls her earliest organizing efforts. After reading Jonathon Kozol's Death at an Early Age, an account of growing up Black in the public schools, she organized her school friends to read the book and then sold copies door to door. At the age of fourteen, Ellen boycotted the sale of grapes and leafletting supermarkets to support the United Farm Workers in their struggle for decent wages and working conditions. After graduating from Harvard, in 1974, Ellen moved to Vermont and became involved in grassroots labor organizing, Democratic Party politics, Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential campaign, and the Progressive Coalition. Ellen talks about her position with the Vermont National Education Association and her volunteer efforts in and around Vermont, including with the United Electrical Workers when they were trying to organize a union at General Electric in Rutland. Ellen also discusses her efforts with the Vermont Workers' Circle and the livable wage campaign. Finally, Ellen reflects on her role as a labor organizer in Vermont and developing personal connections through her work.