Reflections on Southwest IAF Leadership Training
By Zeik Saidman, former IAF organizer and current leader in IAF Colorado.
So, with a deep breath I signed up and joined the first group of leaders (three of us) sent from Colorado for a five day IAF training in Scottsdale, Arizona, opting to go back into a classroom for change agents at the age of 68. Of course I entertained lingering doubts about attending the training in the first place. Didn’t I already pretty much know it all? Wasn’t 14 years with IAF enough to ground my role in the Colorado project? Had the times and the organizing work changed all that much? Had I changed that much? Would it be worth my time and money? What did I have to learn from this new generation of organizers? Who would be conducting the sessions? What would they think of me? What would I think of my fellow trainees?
Somehow it all clicked.
Somehow it all clicked.
I joined the 45 other leaders from around the West for an opening orientation session. We broke into two groups. I was part of the leaders group with deep experience in the public arena.
I relished the material presented and the give-and-take in the classroom. Here’s what stood out.
Athenian or Melian? The choice is ours. The first session began with the Melian Dialogue. Written by Thucydides about the Peloponnesian Wars. Chapter 17 dealt with the Athenians meeting with Melians to discuss their mutual fate. Boring? No. We role played the encounter and sparks of engagement flew. Kip Bobroff, a constitutional law professor and now the lead organizer of Albuquerque Interfaith, oversaw the classroom action. He assigned someone the role of the Athenian, then later directed the same person tp be a Melian others. He pushed, pulled, prodded. We went at it. Arguing back and forth. Dialogue. The words spoken by the Athenians and Melians rang with the reality of power. Grand appeals to lofty values justified interests. The session offered a lens through which to view myself . The question that I began asking: Am I acting/thinking like an Athenian or a Melian? In the IAF world, embracing the Athenian in ourselves shapes leadership for change. Some of those traits are to be proactive and self-assured, to analyze power relationships, to be willing to negotiate, and to be thoughtful, pragmatic and not an ideologue.
Public action. All IAF training sessions, I discovered, have a public action dimension. Valley Interfaith Project (VIP), a 24-year-old broad-based organization centered in Phoenix, was involved in such an action. Trainees observed to better understand the concepts presented in the classroom as they apply in the real world of acting for change. As someone who has organized actions, it was energizing for me to observe and analyze the VIP event. We were taken by school bus to VIP’s Leaders Assembly at Paradise Valley United Methodist Church. (Paradise Valley is where Sen. Barry Goldwater retired and a statue of him has been erected there.)
As soon as we walked into the gymnasium-sized room, we could tell that the meeting was well organized. A cohort of seasoned VIP leaders were checking people in and distributing packets for the “first meeting with newly-elected key legislators.” The materials included an agenda in both English and Spanish, the issues of VIP’s Human Development Agenda again both in Spanish and English, a commitment card, and a pledge card. Leaders also passed out a VIP booklet that listed member’s congregations, paid advertisements from sponsors and allies, statements of its philosophy and newspaper articles on recent successes.
A good IAF action is a public drama. The dignified co-chairs called the meeting to order on time. An opening prayer was said followed by a roll call of member institutions, and a focus statement from well-respected Rabbi John Linder. All of this took place with the five invited legislators sitting together in designated seats in the audience. Next came stories of struggles and victories from lay leaders on issues that VIP was tackling, including restoration of public education funding, prevention of backsliding on Medicaid expansion and legislative help for caregivers who are providing respite care. Before the legislators were given time to respond to questions, a PowerPoint presentation on the state’s budget was made by a top drawer economist, Tom Rex of Arizona State University.
Then each legislator was given three minutes to respond to questions. Every elected official was positive and willing to work with the VIP leaders. However, tension arose when Rep. Bob Robson, thought to be the next speaker pro tem, humorously chided the co-chairs for not coming to his office to meet with someone he wanted without having a VIP “pre-meeting.” Apparently Rep. Robson was trying to leverage his relationships with VIP leaders for that kind of concession. Melanie Beikman, one of the VIP co-chairs who projects a certain gravitas, pointedly responded, “We will be the judge of that.”
After the public meeting was adjourned, approximately 40 VIP leaders reconvened and went through an extensive evaluation of the action facilitated by Joe Rubio, Lead Organizer for VIP. Critiquing an action is a fundamental part of the training an IAF leader receives. The purpose is for leaders to gain insight by reflecting on how they performed in the public arena. At the next morning’s debrief with the participants of the training session, I said that I felt Melanie Beikman’s rejoinder was the high point of the action. “She acted like an Athenian,” I said, and everyone agreed. The theory of the classroom was applied in the real world.
A heartfelt connection. I felt a rush when Josephine Lopez Paul introduced herself as the IAF trainer for our sessions on building broad-based organizations. Josephine is the lead organizer of ACT (Allied Communities of Tarrant) in Fort Worth, Texas. My physical response came from my role as the first IAF organizer in Fort Worth over 30 ago. I remember driving to a meeting one day when the idea of the acronym, ACT, came to me. The name vividly expressed our effort to become allies with both communities and congregations in Tarrant County. The vision was to build a broad-based organization that had power to deal with serious local problems. IAF defines power as “the ability to act”. The leaders of the sponsoring committee supported naming the emerging organization ACT. Through a myriad of relational meeting that I and sponsoring committee members conducted over the next 18 months, a founding convention was held in 1983. Over a 1000 people representing about 20 congregations celebrated the “birth” of ACT.
Josephine led the training session on the elements of broad based organization discerned over 60 years of IAF organization building experience. One story that Josephine shared emphasized the importance of relational meetings. Another targeted money, specifically the difference between hard money (your money, such as dues) and soft money (other peoples’ money, including that of foundations).
The money talk reminded me of someone I met early on in Fort Worth - Val Wilkie, president of the Sid W. Richardson Foundation. The Bass brothers had hired, Val, their old schoolmaster from New England, to direct their uncle’s foundation. When Sid died, he was one of the wealthiest men in the United States. On a one to one basis I cultivated a relationship with Val and kept him informed of the status of the organizing effort.
Years after I left, the investment of time and energy paid off. The Sid Richardson Foundation backed ACT. When ACT moved to include neighborhood projects in a large downtown bond issue, the Bass brothers, top dogs in Fort Worth’s power structure, were furious. One of them demanded that Val discontinue ACT’s funding. He refused. By then he understood the principles of broad based organization that ACT embodied. He knew that the organization had deep local ownership evidenced by a significant hard money dues base from local institutions! The Bass brothers backed off. The bond in its expanded form passed.
Summation. The West/Southwest Leadership Training reinforced my conviction that the IAF offers a sophisticated lens through which to view and impact life in the public arena. (I inwardly note when I hear President Obama or Michelle Obama contrast the “the world as it is“ versus ”the world as we’d like it to be” that the concept came from Obama’s IAF training in the mid 1980’s.)
What I found especially moving about the Scottsdale training was appreciation for the legacy of accomplishment established by former IAF colleagues, many of whom I met when I worked as a community organizer in the Chicago area in the early 1970s. Those men and women whose careers have spanned over 40 years deserve the highest accolades in our democratic society. They have successfully built over 60 broad-based organizations in the United States and five more overseas. They have mentored at least two generations of community organizers and leaders since I left.
Ernie Cortes, Mike Gecan, Arnie Graf, and Frank Pierson have spent most and in some cases all of the last 40-plus years working in the IAF network. They inherited the organizing mantle from Ed Chambers, Dick Harmon and Peter Martinez, who were the individuals Saul Alinsky had running the national office in Chicago. Other people that I meet in the early 1970s were organizers for a while and then went on to other successful careers. However, many years later they came back as leaders and staff to IAF projects. Among them is my close friend Greg Pierce in Chicago and Tom Mosgaller and Bob Connelly in Wisconsin. I joined the ranks of this group by becoming an IAF leader in Colorado a couple of years ago, exploring the possibility of creating a broad-based organization here. The effort is under the able supervision of Paul Turner, a senior IAF organizer out of Des Moines, Iowa. Paul is from the next generation organizer trained by people who I knew when I first started.
In 1940, seventy-five years ago, Saul Alinsky founded the Industrial Areas Foundation. I have no doubt that in 2040, when the IAF celebrates its 100th anniversary, there will be a whole new generation of organizers and leaders commemorating that landmark. I am confident that the commitment to developing skilled Athenian leaders and talented community organizers for these broad-based organizations will still be strong. They will inherit the mantle of understanding how power really works in a democracy so that they can shape public policy for the greater good.
A sin qua non for any future leader in these projects will be attending IAF leadership training. There they will begin acquiring the skills and reflect on the craftsmanship needed to lead these organizations. The mentoring of these future leaders will be the IAF’s most important legacy. Our democratic society owes a huge debt to the IAF.
Acta Publications has developed a series of booklets on “The Skills of Organizing”. Zeik’s own fine contribution is titled Mixing It Up in the Public Arena. In it he explores the roots of his passion for a more just society. He writes, “I was drawn to be an advocate for the disadvantaged and the underdogs of our society, whether I was working as a community organizer, union organizer or even a mayoral aide. Perhaps this commitment was shaped by my childhood experiences when we were the only Jewish family in a small town in rural Pennsylvania and I learned to readily identify with the feeling of being the outsider. I also read Holocaust literature growing up, and the dismay and rage I felt about what the Nazis did to those who were considered inferior peoples (gays, Slavs, Gypsies, Jews) gave me the cold anger and determination to fight for the have-nots."
“The fights were never easy and we didn't win them all, but in thinking about what kept me going from the time I was an innocent man in his early twenties until I had become a worldly old hand in his mid-sixties, I have to admit a big part was the excitement of political battle.”