An Organizer’s Journey: Jay Hessey


            Pearl River      Organizers come from all over, and they all have stories.  I’m fascinated by the paths they’ve traveled, how they got there, and where they are going.  Maybe this will be as interesting to others, as it is to me, but regardless from time to time, whenever I have the opportunity, I’m going to seize it, and share it.

Recently an old friend and comrade, Jay Hessey, happened to be in New Orleans for a while with his partner, Jill Hurst.  Jay sat down with me in our office and talk a bit for Wade’s World on his journey.

Jay was raised in California in a smallish, northern town.  He joined the Peace Corps and, after a stint there, was facing a decision about serving in Vietnam.  He applied for conscientious objector status, and, miracles never cease, received it from his draft board, and, even more surprisingly, they allowed him to work as a tenant organizer in Lexington, Kentucky to satisfy the requirement.  Looking for his next post, he talked to Bert DeLeeuw, who then was running something called the Movement for Economic Justice (MEJ), based in Washington, D.C.  MEJ had been the organizational vehicle that George Wiley, founder and leader of the National Welfare Rights Organization, had begun after leaving NWRO.  They couldn’t grubstake him, but knew of a community organizing project getting off the ground in North Carolina, spearheaded by Dub Gulley, who had been one of the early organizers for ACORN in Arkansas, so Jay went to work for Carolina Action.

I ran into Jay about this time or around then as well.  He came through Little Rock and visited with ACORN for a bit in route back to Cali to visit his people.  He stayed at our house and disappeared early one morning on his way.  Later he ended up as head organizer of Carolina Action and expanded the organization to South Carolina and Georgia.  Around 1978, he and I started discussing the pros and cons of their affiliating with ACORN, which the leadership ended up endorsing.  I can remember meeting with Jay going back and forth on the ferry across the Mississippi River in New Orleans, and his classic line about “shooting with a bigger gun,” as the driver for the merger.  He was a regional director for ACORN in the southeast as well.

When he ended up in Washington, DC, after the United Labor Unions affiliated with the Service Employees International Union in 1984, part of the agreement then was that SEIU would support first contract efforts with Local 100 at the Hyatt in New Orleans.  Jay became the DC-based Hyatt Boycott coordinator on that campaign, which launched most of the rest of his professional organizing career with SEIU.  He joined the building services division and organized workers doing cleaning on contract with the federal government before successfully heading up a separate drive in the Justice for Janitors campaign in DC and the area.  He ran the merged local for a time before joining the international staff, where he worked until he retired, including on international campaigns in India, Australia, and elsewhere.  ACORN Peru did some work under Jay on the Sodexo effort, and ACORN India helped out on the security workers’ organizing in Bengaluru.

Given the arc of Jay’s journey, it is not surprising that even though technically retired he (and Jill) have done stints as volunteers with various nonprofits dealing with women, refugees, or others in Africa, Thailand, and elsewhere for months and months at a time.  These tours and adventures have also showcased Jay’s development as a photographer and have produced some amazing images.

His career doesn’t fit easily in an interview or a short report.  Organizers aren’t one-trick ponies, and Jay is an example of how much they accomplish with their shoulders to the wheel, on or off the payroll.