Building Public Power

An Organizer's Guide to Citizen Action

Such public relationships, he writes, are predicated on mutual respect, seriousness of purpose, and sharp focus on the chosen goal, he says. The idea isn't to speak out, raise consciousness, or bear witness. It is to win.

"Intelligent action, even public confrontation, is at bottom an attempt to engage and relate," writes Gecan, adding, "Most activists fail to appreciate this. Bureaucrats seek to stifle it."

Sometimes the toughest demands aren't shouted, but whispered, as in an episode in the early '80s when East Brooklyn Congregations sought to jump-start the long-stalled restoration of a Brownsville park and public swimming pool. At a meeting, Alice McCollum, a mother of 10 who lived across the street from the park, thoroughly unnerved the self-proclaimed liberal who headed the city's office of construction by continually asking in a soft voice when he expected to finish the project. The construction director became enraged, screaming, "You people! You people!"—code words for minorities that were instantly understood by everyone in the room. The meeting ended on that note. But a few days later, work crews showed up at the park, and the renovation was soon completed. At the city's re-opening ceremony, McCollum approached the construction director and thanked him for his "prompt response and fine work" in returning to her children a place to play and swim. From that day on, IAF found the construction director a responsive and professional public official, Gecan says.

Industrial Areas Foundation's Michael Gecan
photo: Jay Muhlin
Industrial Areas Foundation's Michael Gecan

Gecan's worldview was shaped by his own early encounters with raw power growing up in Chicago. He saw mobsters shaking down his father, a tavern owner; local Democratic bosses extorting families for hundreds of dollars to get on the list for city jobs that never materialized; blockbusting real estate hustlers destroying once vibrant neighborhoods. In the most searing incident, Gecan watched as a deadly 1958 fire destroyed his Catholic grade school, killing 95 of his schoolmates and teachers. The catastrophe, he says, was brought on by a failure to build proper emergency exits—in a church school.

Merit and good-faith intentions matter only when informed by an understanding of how power operates, Gecan says. So it was that when he first visited New York City's old Board of Estimate with a church delegation, he immediately understood that the men in fancy suits walking nonchalantly through the doors that said "Do Not Enter" were not staff, as most rule-obeying citizens assumed, but favor-seeking lobbyists and developers. Meanwhile, the rest of those present waited patiently as the board moved through its interminable calendar. Brushing aside pleas from friends not to break the law, Gecan pushed through the forbidden doors himself, where he quickly learned from a city official that the matter his group was there to push for had been tabled until the next meeting. The church members packed up and went home.

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