Self-actualized activist

Deborah Achtenberg

Deborah Achtenberg

Deborah Achtenberg

Photo By Dylan Riley

So much for the saying “Those who can’t, teach.” Deborah Achtenberg is one example of a professor who is directly involved in political and social activism while still finding time to teach at the University of Nevada, Reno. Born in Kansas City, Mo., Achtenberg has lived in Annapolis, Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. She was the secretary for the Senate Watergate Committee headed by Sam Irvin there, and worked as a researcher for the National Urban Coalition in New York, a civil rights organization that focuses on urban issues. Now in Reno, she teaches at UNR. Her principal areas of interest are psychoanalytic studies, ancient Greek philosophy and continental European philosophy. She has a book published by SUNY Press, Cognition of Value in Aristotle’s Ethics: Promise of Enrichment - Threat of Destruction.

Achtenberg is also the president of SPECTRUM Northern Nevada, which will be hosting Human Rights Night at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 16 at the Siena Hotel Spa Casino. A no-host bar will be open at 7 p.m. Cost is a suggested donation of $5. The featured speaker will be renowned activist Surina Khan, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. For more info, call 337-1418 or visit SPECTRUM’s Web site at

What do you teach?

I teach philosophy. Sometimes I teach Western Traditions, as well as courses on the self and on Freud. In the course on the self, we discuss the authentic self, an idea originating from the era of romanticism. The idea of being who you are, which came in with the Romantics when they rejected modern rationalism. An example of that would be someone like Emerson. It’s one of the ways my work relates to my activism. The theme of authentic self relates to that, since it’s not always easy for the people in the organizations I work with to be themselves in society.

What organizations do you work with?

SPECTRUM Northern Nevada. I’m the president. Spectrum Northern Nevada is a social, political, educational and cultural organization serving northern Nevada’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.

Tell me about SPECTRUM’s upcoming event.

On Oct. 16, SPECTRUM will be holding their first annual human rights awards, or courage awards, honoring Shelly Brewster, Derek Henkle and Darlene Jespersen for showing courage in the face of gender discrimination. The event will feature internationally known gay and lesbian human rights activist, Surina Khan.

I’ve heard of Jespersen. Isn’t she the former Harrah’s Reno bartender who refused to wear make-up?


And Henkle’s the gay student who was harassed by other kids?

Henkle received a settlement for abuses suffered in the Washoe County School System as he moved from school to school to escape treatment such as being lassoed. [We think] the schools have a responsibility to protect people who are different.

Do you have an operating philosophy of life?

Another idea of how [work and activism] connects for me is my own Jewishness. The concept of "Love your neighbor as yourself, and love the stranger in your midst as your neighbor" is a tenet of Judaism that originated from the Israelites being strangers in the land of Egypt. It’s an idea that motivates me in my life and activism."