Obituary: Rita Urwitz, 69, social worker and union leader

Rita Urwitz, a former social worker with the city and a labor leader, died Jan. 6. The cause of death is unknown.

Urwitz, born July 2, 1943, was a longtime Philadelphia resident.

She earned her master’s in social work at Bryn Mawr College, launching her into a career as a social worker who fought for human rights.

She began working as a social worker with the city’s Department of Human Services in 1980. She went on to become involved with the AFSCME District Council 47, heading up its Political Action Committee and launching the council’s wellness program.

Urwitz was involved in a suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the city that ultimately helped revamp how child-abuse cases are handled, and she was one of the leading forces behind the city’s 1996 domestic-partner law.

Mazzoni Center executive director Nurit Shein met Urwitz when Shein first moved to Philadelphia and said Urwitz was responsible for her involvement in Mazzoni.

“She was on the board of directors at the time and approached me and asked if I was interested in taking over the organization,” she said.

David Fair, principal at David Fair Partners, LLC, met Urwitz in the mid-1970s during his work with the Philadelphia Gay Task Force. According to Fair, Urwitz was aggressive in fighting for recognition of women in the LGBT movement.

“She was a part of a group of women who wanted the Task Force to recognize both men and women because at the time, the Task Force was mainly a gay male-focused organization,” he said. “She was fairly aggressive in that movement and she was not shy about it.”

Shein knew Urwitz as a force in the LGBT community as well, noting she Urwitz advocated specifically for youth.

“She was somebody who worked within the social context of the LGBT community and because she worked in DHS, her interest was in the youth. She worked really hard once The Attic Youth Center was in place,” Shein said.

PGN founder and publisher Mark Segal said Urwitz fought for her beliefs, which ultimately benefited the LGBT community.

“Rita helped this community grow by integrating her love of both the LGBT community and organized labor. It is a tribute to her that today, the union is strong and has led to a coalition which benefits the city and the region,” Segal said.

Temple University resident director Michael Beachem worked with Urwitz through DC 47 while he served as a member of Temple University’s Local Council 1723’s executive board.

Through his work, Beachem had the chance to collaborate with Urwitz on various elections, which he said was a rewarding experience.

“I enjoyed this because Rita had a wonderful way of understanding the issues on hand in an election,” he said. “She would provide a Cliff’s Notes version for us to best understand and advocate for the candidate that would work tirelessly on our behalf.”

Beachem also worked with Urwitz through Pride at Work, an international LGBT employee branch of AFL-CIO.

Urwitz’s DHS work and union leadership demonstrated her commitment to fighting for equality on all fronts.

“I knew her as an advocate for justice and equality, and not just LGBT equality but equality for everyone,” said attorney Abbe Fletman. “She had a true belief in social justice and devoted her life to make a change.”

Fair remembered her as a fearless leader who spoke up when she saw injustice.

“Pretty much anything she saw that was unjust to her or unfair, she would be willing to try and fix that problem,” Fair said. “There was rarely a strategy that she was not willing to give a try. Many people are advocates for justice or for those who are more vulnerable, but she was willing to consider all options. She saw the world as a place that was hurtful towards vulnerable people.”

While Urwitz will be remembered for her long legacy of fierce advocacy, Shein said she also had a lighter side.

“She was very funny and she had a great sense of humor. She was an overall wonderful person.”

Beachem said Urwitz was known for being able to effectively communicate with diverse individuals.

“She used a lot of humor and gained legions of fans in both parties for her ability to speak across the political divide,” he said. “Her sense of humor and stories of the history of our city and how far we have come as a community will be missed. She was a wonderful mentor to many and, even in her busy and demanding role leading the union, she had time for others, especially the new members in the union.”

Urwitz married her longtime partner, Carol Reppert, in Maryland days before her death.

She is also survived by their children, Louis, Steven and Dean Reppert, and grandchildren Jonathan, Ashlynn and Nicole.

Urwitz’s family is planning a memorial service for March.