Read an Excerpt
I am an organizer. It's a strange word—"organizer"—a word from the past, a
black-and-white photo of a person passing out fliers to workers leaving an
But it's 2002, and I am an organizer. Not a consultant to so-called
faith-based programs. Not a facilitator. Not an adviser. Not a service provider
or do-gooder. Not an ideologue. Not a political operative. Not a pundit. Not a
progressive. Not an activist.
I'm clearly not a lot of things. In my organizing, I use other old-
like "leader"and "follower," "power"and "action," "confrontation"
and "negotiation," "relationships" and "institutions." These words still form the
phonics of the larger language of politics.
With these basic tools, the plots and subplots of public life, no
matter how intricate, begin to make sense. Characters come to life.
Motivations emerge. Relationships reveal themselves. Themes and story
lines become clear. The reader can begin to talk back to the teller of the tale,
can begin to judge, or can pick up a pen and create a different world. In the
public arena, participation and action and change can take place.
But I won't begin to make sense unless I follow the advice of my
former college professor and poet laureate, the late Robert Penn Warren, and
tell some stories. We took a walk one day on the Connecticut roads near his
Fairfield home. It was a brisk winter afternoon, and his dog was yanking him
along. As we walked, he provided a gentle but thoroughcritique of a novel I
was working on at the time. He kept coming back to a simple theme: "Just
tell the story. Forget everything else and tell your story." He was repeating
what he had already written in his wonderful book-length poem, Audubon: A
Vision, "Tell me a story. / In this century, and moment, of mania, / Tell me a
story / . . . Tell me a story of deep delight." So, many years later, I will follow
the advice of this wise teacher and tell you some stories from my life, the
beginnings of my life as an organizer.
I grew up on the west side of Chicago in the fifties and learned
that we live in a world of power—raw power—long before I knew the word. My
mother and father bought a tavern when my sister and I were quite young. As
a six-year-old, I served shots and beers to the men who sat along "my"
section of the bar. My customers were Italians, Irish, and fellow Croatians.
They walked down the hill a block away from the Chicago and Northwestern
Railroad yard at noon—for a couple of shots, a couple of beers, and
sandwiches and soup made by my mother in the kitchen. My father built a
small platform behind the bar so that I could serve my crowd.
I remember this as a glorious time in my life—a time when I was
admitted to an adult world of strength and laughter and toughness. (My
parents remember this as a period of unremitting pressure and endless
work.) The time ended on a sunny afternoon. The young man from the mob
came in to pick up his monthly payment. My father explained to him that,
because by mother had taken ill, we were short. As my father and the young
man talked, all the other men at the bar became silent, looked down at their
drinks, or stared straight ahead. The young man told my father that he knew
what he had to do. My father nodded. Then the man turned around and
walked out. Slowly, conversation picked back up. Someone ordered a shot of
vo and a Schlitz. That night, my father closed the bar—Gus's Tavern—for
When he sold the tavern to a Polish immigrant, my father
explained to him that there were three "expenses" that did not appear on the
books—the payoff to the police (otherwise, they would not come if there was
trouble), the payoff to the fire department (otherwise, they may not come, or
come promptly, if there was a fire), and the payoff to the mob. The Polish
fellow was indignant. This was America, not his home country. He would not
make these payments, he shouted. My father argued with him, but to no avail.
Some months later, after the new owner had made improvements
to the tavern, reopened it, and begun to rebuild the business, the word spread
through the neighborhood that the tavern would be firebombed that night. No
one went into the tavern that night, so the man had sense enough to shut it
early. Kids from the neighborhood, myself included, were stationed across
the street, sitting on the curb, sipping sodas, watching the darkened bar. A
car pulled up to the tavern. A door opened. A man stepped out and heaved
two Molotov cocktails through the window. The man was in no hurry and wore
no mask. The car pulled slowly away as the building erupted in flames. In
seconds, the street turned from night to noon. It seemed like a long time
before the police or fire department arrived. And, when they did, the building
was gutted, and the owner was wailing on the sidewalk outside.
No matter where you turned, you ran smack into people with
power. The power of the mob. The power of the police. The power of the Cook
County Democratic Party—which demanded three hundred dollars from every
working man in our neighborhood who sought a city job. Three hundred
dollars was a lot of money in those days. And all that it bought was a
place "on the list." No one knew for sure, but the sense was that a small
percentage of people eventually got jobs. The rest paid off, sat silently, and
had nowhere to go and no one to complain to when their payoff didn't work.
Life on the street was no different. As a white, working-class boy,
I grew up fighting black, working-class boys. We jumped them. They jumped
us. We feared them. And we wanted them to fear us. Our lives were strictly
circumscribed—divided by el lines, railroad tracks, and major thoroughfares.
Cross any border and you had to be prepared to pay the price. Every aspect
of our upbringing taught us either to avoid or to confront one another.
Our lives were a series of serious and sudden skirmishes. One
afternoon, two friends and I were sitting on a curb. In the distance, three
blacks, about our age, walked along Ferdinand Street, toward us. They
ambled, it seemed to me then and in memory, incredibly slowly and
casually. As they approached, the toughest of our three, Mike Stepkovicz,
now dead, pulled out his knife, opened it behind his back, and waited. No one
moved until they were right in front of us. Then Stecks, short and stocky but
quick as a snake, grabbed the lead boy, put the knife to his neck, and asked
him where the fuck he thought he was going. The boy's eyes were wide,
unblinking. No words came out of his mouth, although his lips moved. The
rest of us just froze. As quickly as he struck, Stecks let the kid go and told
him to head back the same way he came. We watched them walk away,
faster now, back toward Pulaski Road, south toward Lake Street, out of our
turf, out of our sight.
And there was the much more complicated power of large
institutions—particularly the Roman Catholic Church. Our parish, Our Lady of
the Angels, anchored our lives. It's where we prayed, socialized, played
bingo, went to school. This same parish—and scores like it—often turned a
blind eye to the needs of the working-class whites who packed its schools
I watched as my mother tried to convince our local pastor to do
something about the real estate hustlers who were panicking white families
to leave the neighborhood by warning of the impending flood of black buyers.
These hustlers spoke every language we spoke—Croatian, Italian, German,
and Czechoslovakian. They called every day, many times a day, and then
into the evening, and then all through the night. They roused bone-tired
factory workers from their beds to alert them to how much their home had
lost in value that week, to make them one last offer. Exhaustion and fear
grew. Neighbors moved suddenly, without a word of warning. Then panic
spread. The real estate agents bought low from our families and sold high to
black families eager for a better and safer life for their children. They ravaged
entire sections of a once great city—several times over. They drove families
like mine from neighborhood to neighborhood, two, three, and four times,
further west and northwest and southwest toward the suburbs, losing more
equity, hope, and faith each time. Then they bankrupted black and Hispanic
buyers and steered them into new ghettoes.
My mother went to the pastor and described all this. He nodded
and said he would get back to her. He never did. We found out later that he
essentially redrew the lines of the parish to exclude our four square blocks,
which turned from nearly entirely white to nearly entirely black in one
traumatic and violent summer in the late sixties. We didn't move for three
more years because my Croatian grandmother, who owned our house, and
who would have survived the bombing of Vukovar, refused to leave.
My mother's actions introduced me to a different kind of power—
an attempt by someone to defend herself and her family, to enlist other
families in the effort, to research an issue and understand it well, to take that
research and analysis to a place where she thought her work would be
welcome. She did all this with a positive spirit. She related as openly to our
new black neighbors as to our fleeing white friends. Deeply disappointed by
the inaction of the pastor, she didn't use that disappointment as a reason to
retreat from all public matters or to reject her local parish or her larger church.
It would have been understandable if she had rejected them. She
had already survived one tragedy. On the first day of December in 1958, the
parish school, packed with sixteen hundred kids, caught fire. Ninety-five
people died that day—ninety-two children and three nuns.
I recall the sights and sounds of that first of December nearly
every day of my life. A siren, a news story, a charred building in Brooklyn,
schoolchildren waiting on line or racing around an asphalt playground,
inanities from the mouth of a public official trying to avoid responsibility—it
doesn't take much to jog my memory.
Once again, I am one of fifty or so fourth graders sitting in a
crowded classroom copying the perfect script of Sr. Mary
Edgar . . . "Geography. Read page fifty-eight. . . ." She is tall and thin and
strictly upright, just like the tall and elegant letters on the board. Then, the
fire alarm rings, late in the afternoon, just before dismissal, which makes us
all groan and grumble quietly. We will have to walk outside without our coats
and wait until the entire school empties and then go back in and dress for the
end of the day. In other words, we will leave later than usual.
But today there will be no going back for coats and books and
backpacks. As we file into the hallway, we look up the wide stairwell leading
to the second floor. Midway down, smoke, thick as muscle, blocks our view.
The groaning and grumbling stop. We hurry out to the sidewalk in front of the
school and follow our leader along Iowa Street toward the church. As we
walk, we glance back, see smoke pouring from windows.
In the church, we are commanded to kneel and pray—600, 800,
1,000, 1,200, and more frightened kids, more packed in every minute. We
can hear windows breaking, muffled screams, and thuds from the school fifty
yards away. Someone in my group of friends says, "Let's get out of here, see
if we can help." So we slip out of the pew. We rush, crouching, down the
aisle—a small pack of ten-year-old boys sneaking through the crush of
A moment later, we find that we have hurried into a holocaust.
Sirens wail from every direction, as if the whole city is keening. The next hour
is a blur. We are wandering among the bodies beginning to crowd the
sidewalk in front of the school. We are sent into a nearby house. Later, we
are running, coatless, bookless, home, running six blocks against a rising
tide of parents and brothers and sisters and neighbors, who are pouring
toward the school.
The crush of fire trucks and ambulance snarled traffic right into the
rush hour. My father, like hundreds of other parents, heard this terrible news
about the school but could not get home because of the tie-ups. Finally,
when he rushed into the house, hours late, covered with lime dust from his
day as a plasterer, he looked like a ghost, as did my younger sister and I. He
had seen so much death and near-death, from Omaha Beach to the Battle of
the Bulge, but nothing had left him feeling so desolate and helpless, he said,
as the endless hours of that afternoon.
Out on the street, in front of the school, a young priest named
Jack Egan performed last rites and comforted the barely living and consoled
the parents who were already beyond consolation, and would remain that
way, some of them, haunted for the rest of their lives.
When ninety-two children die in one neighborhood, along with
three religious women who taught them, the entire community mourns. In this
case, the "community" extended beyond the streets and avenues of the west
side, beyond Springfield and Avers and Harding and Thomas, beyond
Augusta and Iowa and Erie, beyond the modest row houses and crowded
bungalows and gray two-flats, beyond the decade and the century in which it
occurred. In this case, the community included the rest of the city, Catholic
schools everywhere, and people of all cities and states. The children of the
city were dead—the kind of kids who lived in every American city at the time.
Their photos filled the entire front page of one of the city's newspapers a few
days later. The event had the impact of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire—another
instance of tragic loss among working-class women in a New York City
knitting mill. Fire safety rose to the top of the national agenda. Dioceses and
schools districts campaigned for sprinkler systems and other fire safety
But there was a terrible twist to this tragedy. The ola fire wasn't
caused by an abusive employer showing disregard for his workers. In the city
of Chicago, in 1958, Roman Catholic schoolchildren, in their local parish
school, in a Roman Catholic city, led by a mayor who attended Mass each
and every morning, died unnecessarily. The institution that sometimes gave
life, through adoption services; saved life, through their health care and
hospitals; supported and enriched life, through their schools and seminaries—
this same institution exposed its most faithful followers to firetrap conditions
and the possibility of injury and death.
When the west side of Chicago—and scores of neighborhoods
like it in many American cities—began to burn again, in the mid-sixties, just
ten years after the ola fire, when parish after parish experienced a near-total
turnover in a matter of months, when hundreds of thousands of hardworking
ethnic Catholics were driven from their homes and hundreds of thousands of
hardworking blacks and Hispanics were steered in, I saw the same kind of
deadly disregard—only this time a little less dramatic, less stunning to the
senses. This time, it was politicians benefiting from the profiteering of real
estate hustlers. This time it was arsonists working for panic peddlers and
landlords. This time, it was stunned and frightened pastors and rabbis
drawing and redrawing the lines of their shrinking congregations until they
had no people left to serve. This time, tragedy didn't strike in an hour on a
December afternoon; the burning went on for a decade—a long, slow smolder
that caused far more damage than the spasms of violence experienced in the
late sixties—and left hundreds of neighborhoods and scores of cities trashed.
For every example of an abuse of power, I experienced, often by
accident, an alternative way to wield power. A few years after the fight with
the three black kids on Ferdinand Street, I found myself stepping tentatively
into a black Baptist church—taken there by a Jesuit Scholastic who taught
at my mostly white Roman Catholic high school. We were neither avoided
nor confronted there. We were welcomed, acknowledged, accepted, and
encouraged. We were then treated to a wonderful worship service—the first of
many in my life as an organizer. Here, too, was power—organization and
talent, leadership and discipline, external impact and real change. And here
was music and humor and warmth that I had not yet felt in any other church.
Not long after my mother's encounter with our local pastor, I read
about Fr. Jack Egan in the Sunday paper. It was now the late sixties and
Egan was serving as the pastor of Presentation Parish, just two miles south
of our home. He was also one of the guiding spirits behind a growing black
homeowners group called the Contract Buyers League. With leaders like
Ruth Wells and Clyde Ross, another young Jesuit named Jack Macnamara,
and a staff of college-age summer interns, Egan and company were working
to correct the conditions that occurred when homes were sold on contract at
exorbitant prices to minority buyers. A contract sale meant that the buyer
had no equity until he or she made the last payment. At any time before that,
the buyer could lose everything if a payment was missed or even late. This
process thrived because the federal government allowed lending institutions
to withhold conventional financing—a process called redlining—from working-
class communities all across the country. It was sanctioned by the great
Cook County Democratic Party, which sacrificed the financial stability and
peace of mind of hundreds of thousands of its most loyal followers for the
payoffs, prostitutes, and cases of bourbon provided by the mortgage bankers,
title attorneys, real estate sharks, and savings and loan executives.
Face to face with this formidable array of opponents, in an
archdiocese that brooked no action or dissent at the time, stood Jack Egan
and Jack Macnamara and the indomitable leaders of Lawndale. They
organized hundreds of homeowners every Wednesday night in the basement
of the parish church. They picketed savings and loans in Cicero while heavily
armed federal marshals separated them from rabid white crowds. They
challenged the major Chicago banks that held the contracts for these
speculators to reveal the extent of the abuse. And they eventually forced
those who profited from this urban erosion to repay hundreds of homeowners'
So, before I went off to college, I saw power in several forms. I saw
the mafia punk in the bar—just another soldier in an army of power abusers
who burdened our family and humiliated our father and tried to break our
spirit. And I saw my mother preparing for her meeting with our pastor, black
homeowners like Ruth Wells picking up the pieces in Lawndale, and a young
minister in a Baptist church preaching a sermon on civil rights in a city both
hostile to his message and elaborately organized to frustrate him.
I sensed that you couldn't just "reform" the abusers of power,
legislate against them, sue them into submission, or sway them with the
merits of your case. I sensed that you had to battle them—power against
power, institution against institution—to check them and counter them and
ensure that your vision of society and community, rooted in the best blend of
democratic and religious traditions, had a chance to grow and survive from
season to season and year to year.
And I began to see—although this notion emerged more gradually
over many years—that organizing, participating, and acting were essential to
the health of your own institutions, your own congregation or faith, your own
political party or union, your own association or citizens organization, not just
the institutions run by those you believe to be neutral or hostile to your
interests. All institutions tend to drift. There's always the danger of the easy
wink between the pastor and the fire inspector, between the lobbyist and the
senator, between the corporate contributor and the chief of staff, between the
not-for-profit executive and agency head. No technical reform or legal
sanction or government regulation can stop this. No degree of separation and
individual avoidance can insulate a person from the consequences of these
insider trades and institutional shifts.
So leaders and organizers face a tough challenge: maintaining a
conservative's belief in the value and necessity of stable institutions, along
with a radical's understanding of the need for persistent agitation and
reorganization. We are called to love, engage, and uphold our most cherished
institutions, while watching them, questioning them, and pressing them to
change, all at the same time.
The women and men who resist the temptation to choose one
extreme or the other, or who don't just opt out, are every bit as important to
the defense of this democracy, in times of crisis and times of peace, as the
dogged citizen soldiers who landed on Omaha Beach. Many are already in
the field and gaining ground. Millions more are willing to fight, even itching to,
but feel as if they lack the training or the language or the skills to do so
effectively. And many of these new American leaders, these soldierly
citizens, just don't know where to sign up or how to start. This book is about
how to do just that.
The Habit of Relating
All Real Living Is Meeting
In September of 1980, after an eighteen-month period of base building, East
Brooklyn Congregations "began." It was a quiet beginning. There was no
grand press conference, no ribbon cutting, no march, no promise of
spectacular success, no celebrity gushing praise, and no political figures
mugging for the cameras. A small team of local leaders met quietly with a
newly hired lead organizer, me, to identify other congregations and
associations to recruit, to put together a list of other leaders to approach, and
to tell me which of the current member congregations would benefit from
more intensive local training.
Around this same time, other quiet beginnings were taking place
in Texas, where Ernesto Cortes had already created one of the nation's
largest citizens organizations, in San Antonio, and was enlisting people like
Sr. Christine Stephens, Sr. Pearl Cesar, Elizabeth Valdez, and the late Jim
Drake to assist him as he expanded into other southwestern cities. Larry
McNeil, a good friend who has just left the iaf, was starting to scratch out the
first power organization in southern California. And Arnie Graf was settling
into Baltimore, where he would be joined by Gerald Taylor, now the senior iaf
person in the South.
The previous spring, I had spent two days—dreary, wet, cold
days—in a side office in Our Lady of Mercy Church on what was then called
Stone Avenue. The view from the window of Our Lady of Mercy was
uninspiring. A row of abandoned four-story walk-ups defined the horizon
across the street. Windows and doors were long gone. Drug dealers slipped
in and out of gangways. Occasionally, later in the day, when the gloom
deepened into darkness, light from a match or candle would flicker inside one
of the abandoned apartments. Phantom families occupied this broken block.
The leaders chosen by the group to interview me individually—
Edgar Mendez, Luella Perez, Alice McCollum, Susanna Lebron, Nellie
Hanley, Elda Peralta, and ten others—had watched their community slide
into this state over the past twenty years. As I met person after person, hour
after hour, I learned that they were embattled, but not beaten. They were
stable, solid, and grounded. They treasured their families. They loved their
congregations. They trusted their pastors. They all harbored memories of a
better time and a better place—whether East Brooklyn thirty years before or
a farm in Panama or Puerto Rico. They could still laugh, and often did. They
had a steady, workmanlike quality about them. They would never appear in
the pages of the New York Times Magazine, but they would press forward,
under fire, day after day.
Having passed muster, I returned in mid-September to begin as
the sole staff person, the lead organizer, of East Brooklyn Congregations. My
second meeting on that day in September was with Ed Chambers. We talked
awhile and then he handed me a long list of names and phone numbers—
seventy-five other leaders from the congregations who made up the beginning
base of ebc. "Go get a sense of these leaders," he said, "and let them get a
sense of you."
In the middle of worsening deterioration, crime, arson, and
abandonment, in a place that looked as if it had been repeatedly bombed and
strafed, I resisted the nearly overpowering urge to rush into action and
instead filled my schedule with individual meetings. And I began to develop
one of the most important habits any leader or organizer can have—the habit
of building new public relationships. Power in our society does not just come
from the concentration of wealth on Wall Street, the dictates of great
governmental agencies, the barrel of a gun, or the fanaticism of a terrorist in
the cockpit of a plane. Power can come from the habit of building new public
The trouble with many of us, and with our culture as whole, is that
we don't take the time to "relate," to connect publicly and formally but
meaningfully with others. Instead, we live in what Richard Sennett called
a "tyranny of intimacy"—presidents pretending to share our pain or talk show
hosts prying into the most intimate corners of private life. Or we feel a need
to maintain constant and superficial contact with others. We see and are
seen by others. We sit in meetings and conferences and dinner sessions
with scores and hundreds of others. We "touch base" with others or "make an
appearance" or "give brief remarks." We buy and collect better tools—a
tyranny of technology—to stay in touch. But all real living is meeting, not
meetings. We don't take the time to meet one to one with others, to hear
their interests and dreams and fears, to understand why people do what they
do or don't do what they don't do.
We forget or deny that the appetite to relate is fundamental, and
that the willingness to relate is nearly universal. People who have ideas and
drive are on every street, in every project, every workplace and school,
waiting in the wings, ready to be discovered. Someone has to reach them
and recognize them. Someone has to ask them to step out, not to be
consumers or props or spectators but to be players in the unfolding drama of
public life. And that someone is what we call a leader or organizer.
One evening, I met Icie Johnson—tall, trim, and regal—a young
African-American woman who belonged to St. Paul Community Baptist
Church in East New York, where the then-skeptical Johnny Ray Youngblood
was pastor. We met one warm evening, with the streets loud and edgy, and I
asked her why she wasn't afraid. "I am afraid," she said, as she prepared to
leave an evening training session and head for the bus stop two blocks
away. "I am afraid," she repeated. Then why not wait for a ride or call a
cab? "Because I'm not fearful," she said. "Not full of fear." With that, she
headed out into the street. About an hour later, after a training session, I did
too. And, in a sense, I've been following Icie Johnson ever since.
These leaders were already forged and mature in many ways.
They understood in their bones the need for accountability and internal
discipline—lessons learned from their lives as leaders in their religious
institutions. They accepted tension, conflict, and confrontation as facts of life
and the prices of progress—perhaps from their own tough encounters on
forbidding streets or maybe from raising children and nurturing families
among fields filled with rubble.
They knew they had enemies but did not hate them. They weren't
distracted by the media, in part because the media found no reason to solicit
their views. They had no community reputation to defend or promote
because, unlike the South Bronx or Harlem, mayors and presidents rarely
visited. They were wary of outsiders—especially white outsiders like Ed and
myself—but were willing to give us the benefit of the doubt, at least, for a
while. They were sophisticated in ways that the swells on Park Avenue could
In my first months in East Brooklyn, I began to wonder what I had
gotten myself into. I would call leaders for individual meetings, and several
would offer to meet me at my office, rather than have me come to their
homes or apartments. "Too dangerous," Domingo Lind said one
afternoon. "Can't be that dangerous," I countered. We compromised. He
asked me to call when I was about to come over. He would head down from
his twelfth-floor apartment and meet me in the lobby of his project. When I
arrived about fifty young guys were milling around the courtyard and lobby—
the same fifty or more guys who "owned" that space every day and every
night. Mr. Lind spotted my car and walked toward me as I parked. The guys
who were already heading my way backed off just a bit. He ushered me
through a cordon of hostile eyes, into the elevator, up to his tidy apartment,
where he served us both coffee, and I asked him how the hell he survived. He
took me down the elevator and back to the car after our session—the same
drill he did at midnight when his wife walked home from the subway and in
the morning and afternoon when his kids went to and from school. He wasn't
a particularly big or tough-looking man. He didn't carry a gun or knife. He was
afraid but was not full of fear. The faith and courage and determination that he
displayed to the toughs in the lobby and courtyard created just enough space
to live a life. In his twelfth-floor apartment, over coffee, for thirty minutes, he
told me what that life consisted of—his work, his role in his church, his
dreams for his children, and his attempts to improve his project. And I
learned that Domingo Lind was a leader.
A few nights later, as I headed onto the Interboro (now the Jackie
Robinson Parkway), guns flashed on either side of the road. Gangs were
battling it out at nine at night. I ducked—ducked!—as if somehow that would
help me get through.
In the winter, late one night, again on the Interboro, two cars had
been upended on either side of the road and had been torched. The shadows
of young men danced on the trunks of the trees. The map said Brooklyn. The
mind said Vietnam. Like Icie Johnson and Domingo Lind, I was afraid much
of the time—still am —but not so full of fear that I couldn't function as an
One night, a year or so later, I was knocking on the door of Mt.
Ararat Baptist Church, in Oceanhill. Mt. Ararat, then, was one of the few
occupied buildings in a blighted landscape. Across Howard Avenue was a
long-abandoned school. Down each block were vacant lots and abandoned
homes. No one lived nearby, so the streets were desolate. Mt. Ararat
somehow held on, on the high ground, led by a gentle giant named James T.
I knocked and knocked, a little unnerved by the moonscape
around me. To my left, three young men sauntered toward me. When they
reached me, they stopped. I turned to face them.
"You the pastor?" One of them said.
"No." I said, praying for Reverend Reeder to appear.
"You own this building?"
"You a cop?"
I paused. "You can stop right there."
My questioner smiled. He looked at his buddies. "Told you" was
all he said, as they walked away, nodding knowingly.
By the time Reverend Reeder unbolted the door and opened it, I
was almost too tired to meet with him. But he proved to be worth the wait and
When you develop the habit of doing individual meetings, you stop
thinking of people as "the poor" or the "the rich" or "the establishment" or
even "the enemy." You don't just size up another person to see if you can
make a sale—whether the commodity is the church, the doctrine, the
political candidate, or the citizens organization that you happen to be
packaging and marketing that day. You resist the urge to find out just enough
about Icie Johnson, Domingo Lind, or James T. Reeder to determine whether
or not they will follow you or "plug into" your worldview or your set of
No, you sit and listen, you probe and challenge. You try to gauge
whether or not you and the other can build the kind of public relationship that
is mutual and respectful and capable of withstanding the tension that all
healthy relating tends to generate over time. You challenge them in a way
that you can only do effectively when you are face to face, one to one, "How
can you stand to live in this place? What have you tried to do to turn it
around? Are you willing to work with groups you say you dislike to make a
difference here?" And you let others agitate you, as they did. "What are you,
a white guy, doing here?" "What makes you think that ebc will be any
different from all the other do-nothing groups around here?" "What does any of
this have to do with ministry and faith, anyway?"
Done well, individual meetings allow people to break out of the
kinds of relational ruts that limit us all. The person who walks in the door of
the congregation is no longer just a congregant or client. And the person who
works on the parish staff ceases being a one-dimensional provider. We see
more of the many facets of people who have come to think of themselves as
invisible or voiceless not just because the powers that be fail to see them and
hear them, but because those who claim to care about their concerns also
fail to relate to them and with them. And they see more facets of you. They
see a not particularly big, not particularly tough, not particularly gung-ho
person standing in their doorway—someone with real questions, not a set of
slick answers, someone with a feel for politics, not a simple formula,
someone who can laugh and who can fight, if need be.
Wherever I went in a neighborhood that one pastor called "a
graveyard," I found vital, able, complicated people. They had an appetite for
learning, for relating across the lines of race and culture, and eventually for
acting in new and effective ways. The number of individual meetings
multiplied as I began to teach the leaders to schedule them—and then
multiplied even more when I hired Stephen Roberson to work as my
associate. This tall, unflappable veteran of the United Farm Workers traded
his beret and blue jeans for a sport coat and tie and dove into the growing
number of congregations that made up the organization.
We all ranged beyond the borders of East Brooklyn to meet
leaders in other arenas. It was important to hear how other New Yorkers saw
the world. And it was important for other New Yorkers to meet leaders from
East Brooklyn who didn't look or sound or act anything like the cartoon
characters portrayed by most of the media. Not long after I began, at the
suggestion of several local pastors, I sought a meeting with the head of the
Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens, Bishop Francis J.
Mugavero. Some of those who thought they knew the bishop, who passed
away in 1991, said in 1980 that he was near the end of his career, that he
was out of favor with the Vatican, that he had run the diocese into financial
difficulties and was coasting toward retirement.
When I arrived at the bishop's office, he greeted me warmly. His
office was across the street from Bishop Loughlin High School, the alma
mater of my father-in-law and several generations of Roman Catholic cops
and pols, fbi agents and U.S. attorneys. It served as one of the great training
grounds for Catholic kids moving from poverty or the working class into
middle- and upper-middle-class life.
The bishop was short, bald, soft-spoken, straightforward,
irreverently funny, and about as far from retirement as any sixty-five-year-old
man I have ever met. He embodied the best qualities of millions of European
immigrants who had put one foot on American shores just decades before
and now had both feet planted squarely in the center of their cities and their
nation. He reminded me of the men from my old neighborhood—the men I
used to watch with awe from a booth in my parents' bar, the hardworking
railroad workers who had shots of vo and bottles of Schlitz with the
sandwiches and soup my mother prepared in our tavern's kitchen before they
returned for five more hours of hard labor repairing track.
My goal was to get my own sense of him and to give him a sense
of me. I hoped that he would refer me to others in the city he thought I should
meet with. Given all that I had heard about him I was more than a little
surprised to find a man looking for new and interesting things to do. He
was "political" in the way Monsignor John Egan in Chicago was—curious
about how the public world worked, wanting to learn how he could make more
of an impact there, hungry for tidbits of gossip or new insights and stories,
happy to hear about the craziness and complexity of life in New York and
ready to mix it up again in the public arena. Here's another reason why it's
so important to do individual meetings: sometimes, in fact fairly often, you
will find that people bear almost no resemblance to the image others have of
them or the public presentation that they and their spin doctors manufacture.
He was called "Mugsy" by his friends—a nickname that
accurately captured his openness and informality. I never called him that, of
course, in spite of the fact that we met scores of times over the ten years we
worked closely together, that we negotiated agreements with the city
together, that we sweated out terrible crises and spent many tense nights
sorting out our situation with mayors and other officials and plotting the next
day's battle plans.
He was interested in everything—the state of his inner-city
parishes, the well-being of his priests, the future of the city, even the fact that
I was asking him for references, for other people to meet with. "What for?" he
asked. "For this, Bishop," I said, "so that I can get a sense of other
interesting leaders in the city and they can get a sense of me and our work.
I'd like to get the lay of the land, so that, when we act, we don't act in a
vacuum and we don't act alone."
He gave me a number of names and said that I could use him as
a reference. Then, as I was leaving, he added one more, "Go see Mario
Cuomo—and tell me what you think of him."
At the time, Mario Cuomo was the lieutenant governor of New
York, a largely ceremonial and powerless position. He had been a local civic
leader who had made a name for himself by serving as the attorney to
vulnerable homeowners in the Corona section of Queens. He was Queens
and Catholic to the core in those days, always ready to regale an audience
about his upbringing in St. Monica's Parish in Jamaica.
I called for an appointment—an anonymous organizer, new to the
city, seeking a meeting with a well-known state official—and got one almost
immediately because the bishop allowed me to use his name. When I arrived
at his World Trade Center office, Cuomo was on time, welcoming, but fairly
fidgety. He listened for sixty seconds or so to my introduction of myself—
ebc, the Industrial Areas Foundation, Saul Alinsky, and so on. When I
mentioned Alinsky's name, he quoted one of Alinsky's sayings, talked a bit
about his own experience in Corona, and said that he had concluded that
there were limits to this kind of organizing. I didn't argue, said there were
limits to every option, and then asked him why he had decided to pursue the
path in public life that led from local activism to public office. By now,
perhaps four minutes into the session, he was growing very impatient.
"What do you really want?" he asked. Well, nothing immediate
today, I said, I'm in the early stages of getting to know the situation in New
York, in Brooklyn . . .
Before I could finish the sentence, he hit a button on the phone to
his right. A side door opened, almost immediately, and two aides rushed
in. "These," Cuomo declared, "are my Brooklyn people. Tell them what you
The two aides sat down and opened notebooks. Taken aback a
bit, I said to Cuomo, "I don't want anything—other than to hear how you see
the state of the city. . . ." He wasn't having any of it.
"You're the one who said 'Brooklyn.' These are my Brooklyn
people. Now tell them what you want."
"What I wanted was a half-hour of your time to get a sense of how
you see things. . . ." I knew I was finished. Cuomo was still sitting there but
had mentally ended the meeting. I mumbled a few things to the staff and left
after a few more minutes. I learned more about myself and how not to
approach a person like Cuomo. But I also learned a fair amount about him.
Far from being thoughtful, sensitive, and ruminative, as he had been
described to me, he was brusque, reactive, and devoid of curiosity. In future
encounters, when our leaders did want to talk about specific matters, we
made sure to present the important issues early in the meetings, in the very
short time before his attention span snapped and aides swarmed in.
The best and most effective organizing—in schools, in
corporations, in unions, in congregations, in politics, anywhere—still starts
when people rediscover the habit of doing individual meetings well and then
consistently do them. The right public relationship, as a major bank claims in
its advertising, is everything.
As a result of these right relationships, in these face-to-face
encounters, in the form of confrontation (from the Latin "con" and "frons,"
foreheads together) that we should be famous for, new leaders and issues
begin to emerge. For example, some years ago, in Baltimore, a Baptist
pastor decided to take the time to sit down and meet individually with people
who came to his church for a free lunch each day. The pastor noticed a
decently dressed young man and sat across from him. The pastor asked,
after some initial back and forth, "Why don't you have a job?" The man
responded, "But I do have a job." Then the pastor probed, "Then why are you
here?" And the man said, "Because I don't make nearly enough money to
afford to eat."
So this mildly astonished pastor listened over lunch to a story of
America in the 1990s—a place where men and women could work full-time,
as temporary workers, at minimum wage, with no benefits and no time off,
and not be able to afford food, phone service, heat, and clothes for
themselves and their families. The pastor then made it a habit to sit down
with someone each day at lunch. And the people on the line ceased being
clients of the congregation's soup kitchen. They became names, histories,
faiths, and tragedies—full and complex human beings, with sometimes
beautiful and sometimes painful and sometimes frustrating stories.
The pastor enlisted the help of Jonathon Lange, the build lead
organizer, who had come to the iaf to apply what he had learned as a union
organizer to the field of citizens organizing and to absorb lessons from
citizens organizing that he could translate into the more effective organizing
of workers. Jonathon, his staff, and other leaders did hundreds of individual
meetings in settings like the soup kitchen, on street corners in downtown
Baltimore where the workers gathered to catch the bus after stints as janitors
in office buildings or hotels or Camden Yards, and in local fast-food
restaurants where weary workers gathered for a quick snack or cup of coffee.
Out of these rapidly multiplying individual meetings, a fuller picture
of the day-to-day lives of these workers developed, and leaders emerged.
Men and women who could not afford telephones, who sometimes went
home to darkened apartments because of unpaid utility bills, who moved from
relative to relative with children in tow to minimize housing costs, who lived a
shadow life in a shadow city, designed the nation's first living wage
campaign, authored and passed the nation's first living wage law, built the
first low-wage workers' organization, and started the first living wage job
agency for the working poor.
The pastor in the soup kitchen rediscovered the tool called the
individual meeting and then disciplined himself to use that tool day after day.
Sitting across the lunchroom table from the good citizens of Baltimore, he
was reviving and extending an American tradition.
Imagine John Adams and his long rides from Massachusetts to
and from Philadelphia. He often traveled with just one companion. He spent
days on the road, encountering people in taverns and stables. When he
wasn't speaking one to one or in small groups to fellow Americans, he was
communicating one to one through letters, hundreds of letters, to his friends
and family and colleagues. The demands of travel by horseback were offset
by the countless hours free of beepers, cell phones, and e-mail that he spent
reading poetry and thinking, actually thinking.
Remember Lincoln, who rode for years from small town to small
town as a local lawyer and anonymous state legislator. He sat outside
general stores and met individually with people. He doggedly built
relationships over many miles and many years. Our democracy was founded
and forged by women and men who were quirky and complex, but profoundly
relational. It may be that the very habit of building public relationships is part
of the human constitution of a vital democracy, just as the habit of thinking
and reflecting is fundamental to our ability to make ethical and moral choices.
Consider my father. August Gecan, a Croatian teenager,
immigrated to Chicago in the thirties. The pastor of the local Catholic church
in his new Chicago neighborhood, Holy Trinity Parish on 18th and Throop
Street, stopped by to visit him and did an individual meeting with him. Then,
nearly every year of my father's life, for a span of sixty years, that pastor and
the pastor who succeeded him when the first pastor died, and the pastor after
that, took the time to do an individual meeting with my father. It didn't matter
that my father did not consider himself "special." Was not a professional.
Was not rich. Was not a big giver. Was not a model parishioner. Moved away
from the parish when he married. Then moved again, and again. Each year,
the priest visited. And each year my father was honored to have him visit.
And, until the day of his death, he maintained his ties to that parish and that
community and those priests.
In a culture of quick encounters and multiple contacts, of instant
access and empty photo-ops, there are fewer and fewer public relationships
of this depth and quality. The absence of these relationships creates great
gaps in our society—where alienated people become more detached, where
lost and damaged people spin further out of control, where the apathetic and
the enraged drift further away from a human center, where killers and
terrorists hide in plain sight, shopping at the supermarket, drinking at the bar.
We will never have enough technology or enough security officers or social
workers or government programs to compensate for the loss or thinning of
But we don't need an expensive PalmPilot, an mba, or a costly
business suit to learn the art of the individual meeting and to develop the
habit of doing them. We just need the clarity, the confidence, and the time—
and the support of others who understand what is fundamental to effective
organizing and constructive leadership and what is peripheral and inessential.