Michael Gecan is retiring as Co-Director of the Industrial Areas Foundation this month. All accolades coming his way will be richly deserved. His career has been a model of how to build and sustain broad based power organizations. Mike has been an organization builder, innovator, risk taker, and thought leader for over four decades.
While best known for his work with East Brooklyn Congregations (and the sparkling success of Nehemiah Housing in NYC), his mentoring of talented leaders and organizers, his strategic brilliance applied to multiple political fights over decades, his talent for expression through the written word, his (cold) anger, humor and patience put him in the top rung of change agents in the USA and abroad.
See DF's page devoted to Michael Gecan's Books.
BOOK OF THE MONTH:
"The Relational Meeting, Big Ed and the Mixing of Spirits" From a Forthcoming Book By Perry C. Perkins, Jr.
Edward T. Chambers, “Big Ed” as the chronicler of modern populist history, Studs Terkel called him, was the successor of Saul Alinsky as the Executive Director of the Industrial Areas Foundation. Ed was the one who moved IAF from a collective of gadfly organizers who came and went, gathering around Alinsky, into a profession. Ed insisted on, and raised the money so that organizers could make professional wages and support their families. Ed, with great resistance from Alinsky but with support from Dick Harmon, Mike Gecan, Ernesto Cortes, and Arnie Graf of the IAF staff, created the Alinsky Institute and began to conduct 10-Day National Trainings as a place to teach organizers and institutional leaders the philosophy and methodology of Institutional Organizing. IAF National Training was the place where the young organizer Barack Obama, then affiliated with another organizing network, came in 1988 to receive training. Edward T. Chambers, more than another single person is responsible for creation of the profession of organizing.
He was my first organizing mentor. Prior to my joining the collective of IAF organizers, while working with the United Woodcutters in Mississippi, I would meet with Ed three to four times a year. Ed was not a touchy-feely guy. He was gruff and irreverent and sometimes his brusque, gruff and irreverent manner got in the way of his political judgement.
At my first IAF Senior Organizers meeting at a Catholic Retreat Center at Oyster Bay on Long Island, Ed was demonstrating the art of the Relational Meeting. He called me up and asked me to conduct a relational meeting in front of 20 of my peers. I had been with IAF just over a year. I immediately was filled with fear and self-consciousness. It was a horrible example of the art of the Relational Meeting. Ed cut me no slack and did not offer any help with my anxiety. Instead it felt as if Ed was almost mocking my inability to conduct a meeting.
I was totally self-conscious. I was thinking more about my peers watching me and less about getting to know more about Ed. Without any prelude, I blurted out, “How did you get into organizing?”
Ed quickly responded, “You do not have permission to ask that question. I am not answering. You know nothing about a relational meeting. Sit down!”
I was devastated. After the session, I went back to my room and sulked. Robert Rivera, then the Lead Organizer with the IAF organization in Houston and my supervisor, came in. "Perry, shake it off. Ed was out of bounds don’t worry about it. You will learn this craft.”
An hour latter Gerald Taylor, then the IAF Organizer with BUILD in Baltimore, came by and asked me to go for a walk. It was a bitterly cold, Long Island afternoon. What sun could be seen was beginning to set in the west and a brisk cool breeze was blowing from the nearby bay. I was physically cold and my bruised spirit probably made the cold even worse. I do not remember the cloud of fear appearing but I did feel a deep hurt and loneliness. This was a familiar feeling from my youthful days in those dark times in Mississippi.
Gerald quickly got to the point. “Ed is a great guy. He has taught me a lot. He has been on my side from the beginning of my time with IAF. However, he can be out of line at times. He was out of line today. You need to not take it personally. This does not mean his actions were appropriate. You need to show that you are as tough as he is. Don’t let him kill your spirit. Take him on. Go at him and show him what you are made of.”
Later that evening, I did meet with Ed. It is strange but I do not remember the details of our meeting. I do remember two things. First, he said, with that signature twinkle in his Irish eyes, “You will make it. You have the heart of an organizer.” Then he looked at me and said something I had heard him say before and would hear him say many times again, “Remember, the Relational Meeting is a mixing of spirits.”
Ed believed deeply in his being that the Relational Meeting that he often referred to, as the radical tool of organizing, was indeed a mixing of spirits. He may not have always done it but he taught me this truth. The Relational Meeting is a formal meeting initiated by one of the two parties in the meeting. It usually last 20 to 30 minutes. It is a search for leaders; that is, someone with consistent following that they can deliver, or for potential leaders, people who want to learn to develop a following. These meetings are a mixing of spirit and story. In them, we probe for the personal grounding for public action.
Earlier I mentioned the meeting with Rev. Oveal Walker where he shared one of the stories that gave a clue to his personal motivation for his work to improve the quality of the public schools in Beaumont TX. In that meeting, he told me that his father was very successful while only having a 3rd grade education. His father, in fact, forbade him from seeking further education. At first he was obedient but he later defied his father and paid for his two sisters college education. Rev. Walker then went on to obtain his Bachelor’s degree and a Masters of Divinity.
After telling me this story, he said, “I do not want any other child to have to endure what I did. I want to be about building a community that values access to high quality education for all its children.”
I knew immediately that Rev. Walker had invited me more deeply into his life. I also knew that with this invitation came new responsibilities. First, I had to reciprocate - I had to more deeply share some of my stories. I had to listen carefully and act with prudence informed by this deeply painful story.
The mixing of spirits that happened over time in that meeting led to our working together and the eventual passage of a school bond to fully fund the renovation and rebuilding of schools in low income communities in Beaumont. My story from the Dark Room and other stories that flowed from the invitation of Rev. Walker gave him a deeper sense of who I am and what motivates me. This mixing of spirits led to a public relationship between us.
Rev. Walker and I were not close personal friends. We did not have a private or social relationship. We had a public relationship built around mutual concerns and interest. We were what some would term “political friends”. I knew that when things got hard in public negotiations with the School Board, the administration and the business community Rev. Walker would stay strong. The pain of his story drove him to put everything on the line.
Rev. Walker’s story and the stories I have shared are pictures of what is meant by the ancient Norse word, angra. The word is the root word for our English word anger. It meant grief or loss. All of us have experiences of grief or loss in our lives. The question is what are we going to do in response?
Anger, as I have learned it from my colleagues in the IAF, is a middle response to the grief and loss in our lives. It is measured. It is in proportion to our loss. It is aimed at the right person and it holds out the possibility of resolution. Anger is rooted in a sense of power that comes from connection to other people. Anger grows out of and is focused through the mixing of spirits.
An organizer’s job is to rearrange power in a community. We are invited into communities to enable institutions to live out their missions by building Broad-Based Organizations, coalitions of institutions. The Broad-Based Organization is created for building an alternative or new source of power in a community.
A local expression of IAF’s essence, the Broad-Based Organization, is deliberately diverse. By design the organization crosses the varying divisions of community life, race, religion, economics, geography and political ideology. The creation of these deliberately diverse broad-based institutions requires hundreds of one on one, relational meetings, where spirits are mixed and trust is built across historic chasms and divisions. In a world where change is occurring at warp speed, led by the fast moving and quickly evolving world of social media; the art of the relational meeting could be easily lost.
A recent set of events demonstrates the irreplaceability of this mixing of spirits. As I was watching the events of Hurricane Harvey unfold on TV, I had numerous emotions running through me. Watching Harvey gave me flashbacks to 12 years before where the storm was named Katrina, the city was New Orleans and I was not watching. I was in the storm.
For the first part of Katrina, we were evacuated to my Mom’s house in Jackson, MS. I knew she would lose power and we wanted to be with her. We lost power and did not know that the levees had breached until Monday afternoon, a day after landfall. For the next few days we were at my father-in-law’s home in Greenwood Ms. He was in the hospital recuperating from surgery. We did not have much time to watch events on TV.
We left Greenwood and went to Shreveport LA, where I had an apartment that was a portion of three 1970’s vintage double-wide mobile homes connected to each other on the campus of Holy Cross Episcopal Church, in Downtown Shreveport LA. The furnished three-bedroom apartment was called the “Mary Tyler Moore Mansion” by my daughters. Its décor and furnishing were straight out of this sitcom. It had no TV. My wife would make daily visits to our younger daughter Rebekah’s dorm at Centenary College a few miles away to watch events back in New Orleans. I didn’t.
I was spending my time trying to aid in the development of the IAF response. Our organization in Houston was in the Astrodome organizing survivors. They were also in the middle of the daily power meetings convened by Mayor Bill White. Our organizations in Dallas, in Memphis, Jackson and North Carolina were also responding to the influx of New Orleanians into their communities. Our leaders and organizers were meeting leaders and pastors from New Orleans.
I was in daily contact with the office of Sen. David Vitter, the far-right junior Senator from Louisiana. We were also in contact with Johnny Anderson, the Chief of staff to Gov. Blanco. Sen. Vitter was a bit of a strange bedfellow. He was as hard right as you could get, but I had a relationship to him through his mother. Audrey Vitter had been a central leader of the IAF Organizing Team at St. Rita’s Catholic Church in New Orleans. He would come to our meetings around the state and would, without his usual fanfare, work with us on our issues. In fact, during the immediate aftermath of Katrina, we worked with him to secure $15 an hour relief jobs for evacuees.
I was flying back and forth to Texas to meet with my colleagues. I also was attempting to get back to New Orleans to see about our house and neighborhood. I knew through text with my neighbor, an electrician who had stayed, that our house was OK. The work, dealing with FEMA and trying to get back kept me from the seeing events on TV. After the storm and a year later when the documentaries began to come out, I started to see the events.
That Friday night twelve later, as I watched the flooding and devastation in Beaumont and Port Arthur, I remembered my wife and I traveling back to New Orleans 10 days after the storm. As we traveled back we met several New Orleans police and firemen who had been given the week off after working for days at a time without break. They were now going to Texas to briefly reunite with their family. As we got closer to New Orleans, we saw worlds of military vehicles and seemingly endless lines of ambulances leaving the city.
Our home is in Algiers, a New Orleans neighborhood, on what is referred to as the West Bank. We are south of the Central Business District but we are across the Mississippi River. This means that we are in a different levee system. Our levees did not breach. Eighty percent of New Orleans, all on East Bank were underwater. Our neighborhood was high and dry but we had to come into the city through back roads because most of New Orleans was blocked off and still underwater. We came in at night and the darkness, caused by power outages all-across the metro area, created an eerie feeling of doom and destruction.
So, on that Friday night during Harvey, I saw what was happening in Beaumont. I knew immediately, “these guys will be left out of the recovery.” I picked up the phone and called Rev. Walker.
He said, “I was thinking about you. I was thinking that the black community without contact deep in the white community will be left out of this recovery.”
The IAF organization that I had helped Rev. Walker with some 15 years ago had become a single-issue organization and eventually folded. They were the contact that Rev. Walker and other Black Pastors had to the white community. Because these contacts were no longer current Rev. Walker felt cut off from the power people in the white community.
“Beaumont is so racist. Even people like myself, who have been around and have relationships with white power folk, have limited capacity to shape what happens in our communities. IAF gave us a way to do this. I wish you were still here.”
“Rev. Walker, if you guys are willing to try again, I think I can get my colleagues to go for it. I feel a moral responsibility to you and Rev. Cantu.” Rev. Gary is a Church of God in Christ Pastor and District Superintendent in the Beaumont area, who had been deeply involved in our past work.
We have put together a very solid coalition of clergy: white, black, Hispanic and Asian. They are forming a Long-Term Recovery Committee for Beaumont that has been official recognized by FEMA and they have secured funding for a Recovery Organizer for the region. This work and the possible renewal of our work long-term in the area had its roots in that late Friday afternoon meeting with Rev. Walker over 15 years ago.
This radical tool of organizing, this mixing of spirits, that Big Ed taught me, sometimes gently, sometimes with an abruptness that was often appropriate and sometimes not, has been a gift that has brought me from the powerlessness and isolation of my youth to an active deep involvement in the lives of people, their interest and their communities. For this I am forever grateful.
Perry C. Perkins Jr.
Industrial Areas Foundation