By Michael Gecan
JULY 1, 2015
AMERICAN JEWISH UNIVERSITY
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA
When you work with someone as dynamic as Ed Chambers, you end up with a great gift: a lifetime of memories, vignettes, and stories.
I'll start with my very first impression. I met Frank Pierson while working as a civic organizer on the west side of Chicago. One day, Frank suggested that I meet this fellow named Ed Chambers. I saw all organizing as very local at the time and didn't really see the point of anything beyond the borders of my neighborhood. In fact, I was suspicious. But I trusted Frank and made the call.
When I arrived, the secretary directed me to Ed's office. Except it wasn't an office, really. It was a lair. And there, in the dark, surrounded by piles of books and papers, slumped in a chair, was Ed, not looking very happy. He asked me how I got to him, and I said Frank had been the reason. Then he asked, in a gruff voice: "Who is your best leader?" I said her name. Ed said, "She's a big fat pile of nothing." Without thinking, I said, "You're a big fat pile of nothing." A second later, we were both standing and yelling at one another. I remember storming out. He remembered kicking me out. It all took two minutes. That was our first relational meeting.
Two years passed. Ed called one day and said that maybe we hadn't had such a good start and asked me to come in again. We met. At the end of the meeting, Ed offered me a job. I said that I had a condition -- one condition. I could sense him begin to flare up again. My condition was that I only work for him. Ed said that no one told him who their supervisor would be. But he agreed to my condition -- but for only one year, he said. One year turned into 34. Thank God.
From the very start, I couldn't help but see two of Ed's many great qualities. One was his ferocity. He had fire. When the heat hit you, it could be touch and go. But, far more often, that fire burned FOR people we all care about and was directed AT anyone or anything that stood in their way.
The second quality, much less known, was flexibility. If you fought back hard enough, Ed would adjust. But you had to earn that adjustment by fighting him.
As I worked with Ed over the years, I learned and tried to emulate a third quality: his fierce commitment to the fundamentals of organizing -- respecting leaders, deciphering the codes of power, acting with purpose, and making sure that we all had the pay and benefits to live full private lives.
Just two nights ago, Monday night, in Brooklyn, 500 Nehemiah homeowners gathered to refound their association. Carmellia Goffe, who hosted an early meeting of the effort their in her unheated apartment in a partially abandoned building, spoke. Here's what she said:
"I asked myself: who dropped a bomb on Brownsville? (This in the dark days of the 1970's.) ..... but then something remarkable happened. Our leaders -- Pastor Heinemeier, Bishop White, and Fr. Powis -- came together. Their first meeting was in a run-down tenement building on Dumont Avenue. A dark, dank, dilapidated place that reflected what was going on in our neighborhood. Mr. Chambers, a professional organizer from the IAF, said to us: 'When you get yourselves organized and raise the money to get your organization started, call me back.' I don't believe Mr. Chambers thought it could be done. For that matter, I don't think WE thought it could be done. But a fire had been lit under us that made us come together -- blacks, Hispanics, whites, Catholics, Protestants, and others. It was unprecedented. We held house meetings, one on ones,and we raised $150,000 in dues. We called Ed Chambers back and told him we were ready to start East Brooklyn Congregations...."
Finally, there was a fourth quality: Ed's flashes of sheer brilliance. Because Saul Alinsky was so charismatic, glib, and well-spoken, it's easy to overlook Ed's breakthrough ideas. The obvious one was the whole concept of building broad based power organizations.
A second was his insight, in the late 1990's,to include the growing Muslim community in the founding of United Power for Action and Justice -- a move that led to the recruitment of Muslim institutions all across the US, the UK, Germany, Australia,and Canada. When 9/11 occurred, when everyone was paralyzed or stunned, Ed acted. Chicago and Islam -- 2,000 Muslims along with 2,000 Jews, Christians, civic and labor leaders -- took place on Navy Pier. To many Muslims in Chicago and beyond, it was the equivalent of the Selma Bridge. Another example is when I was invited by the then-mayor Ed Koch to dinner at Gracie Mansion. This was a very strange, unusual, and un-IAF situation. I was reluctant to go. But our three strategy teams in New York, the late Bishop Francis Mugavero, and Ed all thought I had to go. The day before, I drove out to Long Island and sat through one of Ed's great grilling sessions. It was like being coached by Red Auerbach or Phil Jackson. He brought up every possible contingency and put me through my paces. As I got up to leave, I felt ready. I felt fit. Then he said what he often said before we went into battle: "Keep your powder dry." And he finished with these final words of advice: "Remember, the door swings both ways."
That was EXACTLY what I need to hear. It echoed in my mind as Koch tried to humiliate the IAF. And it motivated me to stand up and walk out of Gracie Mansion.
"The door swings both ways."
Where did that come from?
It came from the mind of a man who had fire and flexibility, who respected the fundamentals and committed his life to people like Carmellia Goffe,and who understood power and its uses in a profound way.
His absence is a great and glowing presence in our lives.