A Book Provides a Good Excuse to Celebrate Organizing and Organizers

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La Familia Peña-Govea

San Francisco   As luck would have it, I had gotten a notice that there was going to be an event to publicize Gabriel Thompson’s excellent book, America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century, at the Crossroads Café in San Francisco on one of the nights that I was in town, so I stopped by. Thompson ably presented the book and a bunch were sold, but this was this was more of a reunion, than a reading.

Dr. Mimi Silbert of Delancey Street Foundation

Dr. Mimi Silbert of Delancey Street Foundation

The Crossroads Café turned out to be a of the signature efforts of the justly famous Delancey Street Foundation, one of the bright lights of the rehabilitation movement for prisoners and others. Dr. Mimi Silbert, the general and CEO of this all volunteer, self-help operation, was one of the livewire story tellers, introducing the program and cementing the bonds between the farmworkers and the foundation and its people. Fred Ross, Jr., also a career organizer, didn’t give an inch of ground though in telling stories about his father as well, including one legendary family tale that Thompson had not been able to authenticate, but had famous Hollywood moviemaker Cecil DeMille seeing Fred Ross and his brother in their youth and muscle building stage working as extras in one of his productions where they were Roman slaves, and reportedly saying, “who are those two assholes with the Hollywood haircuts!”

Gabriel Thompson

Gabriel Thompson

Thompson did a fine job of understanding the crowd and focusing on a few of the Ross’ axioms and reading several sections of the book and taking the opportunity with this group of thanking many for paving the road to getting the book done. Social Policy in its most recent number did a special feature on the book, but somehow hearing from Thompson that June 9, 1952 was the exact date that Fred Ross recruited Cesar Chavez, speaks volumes in and of itself about the value of the book and the wealth of its information.

But the night belonged to the people who came to share their memories of Ross and the work, and that was a special celebration to be able to witness. There was testimony from old comrades remembering the struggle and what they had shared, shoulder to shoulder with Ross, and what it had meant to them, while also making it clear when speaking of Ross that there was no sacrifice involved, no regrets expressed, because he “loved organizing.” What a wonderful truth, rarely realized!

Fred Ross Jr.

Fred Ross Jr.

Henry Weinstein, the veteran, former labor reporter from The Los Angeles Times told the story of the Gallo fight with great vigor, and his anger, even as a supposedly objective observer, subtly demonstrated another, often missed, truth that universally motivates organizers and animates the work. Christine Pelosi, one of the daughters of the former House Speaker, told a story about taking off a semester from Georgetown to help in her mother’s first Congressional election. Ross and Ross, Jr. were both working in the guts of the campaign. Ross, Jr. had told an earlier story about Pelosi’s father having sent someone over from Baltimore where Pelosi’s father had been mayor to make sure the “house meeting” strategy was for real. Christine described showing up to work on a phone bank and telling Fred Ross that she didn’t know what she could do, because she didn’t have a phone list. Ross told her, “Use the book.” He meant the phone book, which he sat in front of her. She described him sitting there, silently, arms and legs crossed to observe her as she began doing what she had felt impossible and ridiculous moments before, and started cold calling through the numbers. She also told about a boot camp preparing for the 2008 election and bringing the Clinton and Obama teams together, and the fact that using house meetings came up in the discussion. The Clinton team, said, why bother, “we didn’t use them in South Carolina.” The Obama veterans shouted, “We did!” Obama had of course won the South Carolina primary, a turning point in his campaign.

In some ways that said it all about Ross, a legacy written in the work and in the leaders he developed and trained. Fred, Jr., still organizing as well, understood that the book is simply a platform, almost an excuse, to call the troops back from memory lane and into battle.

In the rare opportunities to celebrate, there is a rekindling of conviction.

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Going Deep in the Tenderloin with Randy Shaw

DSCN1177San Francisco   When I lasted visited with Randy Shaw at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic about a year ago, the Tenderloin Museum was nearing opening day, and he offered a personal tour the next time I was in the Bay Area. Needless to say, I didn’t hesitate to take him up on the offer this trip.

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Randy is a now a long time fixture in the Tenderloin as a housing and tenant organizer and lawyer of several decades standing, as well as an author of several books on organizing and, more recently, on the Tenderloin itself. The Tenderloin, as the name of the neighborhood in downtown San Francisco implies, speaks colorfully to its own history as the favored location for the pursuit of sometimes open and sometimes illicit pleasure of different forms for generations whether that be dancing or gambling, wine, women, work, or song. It was also the longtime home near the heart of the San Francisco labor movement and of huge and important tenant struggles, some of which Shaw was in the middle of as well, which have arguably made the small, dense blocks of the Tenderloin perhaps the last working class, semi-affordable neighborhood in this high-flying executive city where average home prices now top $2 million.

DSCN1179The Tenderloin Museum does a good job in a well-organized, nicely crafted space in telling the diverse story of the community’s history and struggles, as well as importantly it’s people, whether immigrants or workers or writers and artists. Amazingly, as I walked through the museum with Shaw, I looked up and there was an illuminated map of the Tenderloin and its streets, dramatically underscoring the diverse history and stories of the space.

The quick tour of the museum turned out to be only a prelude to a fuller understanding of the way Shaw and the housing clinic have used their base and experience in the area to be developers steering the very future of how people will come to see the Tenderloin in coming years. The museum of course anchors the history, but walking these short blocks from Shaw’s office, we popped our heads into a construction site, where a restaurant, the Black Cat, is taking shape, which they support as cheerleaders and investors. Several blocks from the museum and the cat, at 236 Leavenworth we walked into an art gallery displaying work by Tenderloin artists or artists with a connection to the neighborhood that was surprise in and of itself.

DSCN1181Another couple of blocks away Shaw greeted the director of a space opening this week that they fondly called the Octopus because of the giant murals of fish and sea creatures dominated of course by the octopus itself. Dave Eggers, the noted author and another impresario in the literature, art, and cultural world, had found his match in Shaw as the primary promoter of the Tenderloin and its treasurers and was on the eve of opening a huge space to mentor young writers in one section, supported by retail in another. Last minute painting was still being done by the muralists, video crews were coming in, and the organizers saluted Shaw on his recent coup of getting the Mayor to the opening to launch the space.

Anywhere else in San Francisco all of this might have added up to the first shots coming from the guerrilla troops of the gentrifiers, but in these subtle statements behind numbered doors, it was clear that instead – at least for now – I was getting to watch value being added to the community that was understated, but appropriate and significant to what we can still hope is a bastion for the future of the city where people may still have a place.

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