Penn was born, grew up and graduated from high school in 1966 before attending Oberlin College where she majored in English and Comparative Literature and graduated in 1970. She began her political involvement during the 1968 Poor People's Campaign after Dr. King was assassinated. His death was a turning point in her life because she realized that she had to be involved politically if she wanted a better society. Her focus was on dealing with white people around the issues of racism.
She lived and worked for many years from 1970-1995 in San Francisco where she raised her daughter, worked at San Francisco General Hospital and the San Francisco Women's Health Center, had her own Organizational Development and Mediation business and was involved in a variety of political issues including women's health care, homelessness, Central America, anti-nuclear, peace and social justice. She did workshops for many years in how to organize, plan demonstrations and taught workshops in nonviolent civil disobedience. She has worked in both Guatemala and Colombia doing accompaniment of human rights workers.