Episode 6: Fight for Every Block with Gerald Taylor
What’s the difference between single-issue organizing and building power for the long term? Gerald digs in to some of the tensions that emerge when you fight for wins in the here and now, while you build institutions that teach and prepare people for democracy.
George Goehl: Hi, I’m George Goehl, and this is The Next Move, where we’re talking with organizers about the craft of organizing. In today’s episode, I have the pleasure of talking with Gerald Taylor. Gerald challenges us to fight for every block and for every county, to not write places off, but to instead write them into what we are building. In his words, we need to have the willingness, the guts to go into counties and states where we’re not going to be in the majority. He’s not asking us to do something that he himself has not done. He spent a lifetime organizing beyond the choir.
George Goehl: Gerald Taylor’s career began when he was 17 as a youth leader in the civil rights movement. It’s been further defined by his 35 years as National Senior Organizer in Southeast regional director with the Industrial Areas Foundation. He has also lectured on theories of social change and community organizing at colleges and universities, including Duke University, Vanderbilt, and UNC Chapel Hill. Let’s get into it.
George Goehl: One question I definitely don’t know the answer to is, how did you even find organizing?
Gerald Taylor: Oh, how did I get into this?
George Goehl: Yeah, how’d that happen?
Gerald Taylor: Let’s see. Well, it starts in ’64. I grew up in Harlem. I was in the middle of a school, and I was in high school, Brooklyn Technical High School. There was a call for a school boycott in New York City, and while I was walking down 125th Street, some folks in CORE, Congress of Racial Equality, East River CORE, were driving their truck with the loud speakers on top calling for people to join the boycott and handing out flyers. So, I said, “Let me go over here and check it out.”
Gerald Taylor: I went over and said, “I’d like to help. What can I do?” They said, “We’ll get in the car. Got on the megaphone and start calling people out to turn out.” So, I joined the East River CORE, and we got involved in this boycott. That boycott had almost 500,000 students and teachers walk out. It was the largest event of its kind during that period in the ’60s. And after that, I had a friend of mine who said, “Look, you need to come on over to the NAACP Youth Council meeting, the Harlem Youth Council meeting.
Gerald Taylor: And I said, “Why, I want to go over there? They’re a bunch of bourgeois Negros over there. I’m not interested in that.” They said, “Man, they got a lot of pretty girls over there though, Gerald.” I said, “Oh, yeah. That sounds good to me.” So, I went on over to the Harlem branch Youth Council meeting, and there were a lot of very pretty young black women over there. And I met a woman by the name of Emma Bowen who was the advisor to the youth council, a black woman who was connected to all kinds of black media, black television, radio artists. She became my mentor.
Gerald Taylor: Flew on an airplane for the first time to the NAACP National Convention in Denver in ’65 and spoke on the Florida convention and got this massive ovation. All of a sudden, I’m a political actor in a world I know nothing about, the NAACP politics and Robert’s Rules of Order, Wilkins calling us all kinds of names. Me and my boys from Harland, we said, “Look. We need to go meet Roy Wilkins, and maybe we need to teach him a lesson.”
Gerald Taylor: And she said, “No, no. That’s not how you do that. You don’t go to jack folk up.” She said, “You do politics. You learn how to put together resolutions. You learn how to walk around and talk to delegations from all over the country and try to line up a majority.” So, that’s where I started politics and organizing. I became the state president of the NAACP Youth and College Division at 17 in New York State. I had one of the largest youth council networks in the country. We were militant. We were radical, politically.
Gerald Taylor: Friends in SNCC and CORE. Massive civil disobedience actions that we ran all over the place. Came out against the war in Vietnam, and it was against policy at the NAACP. So, that was the beginning. I left that. I stepped down as president in a revolt that the young adults had against the policies of the association in ’68. A lot of us quit, and that generation of leadership… I mean, it took two generations. It’s never recovered from that walkout by myself and the others that left at that point in ’68.
George Goehl: What was the walkout about?
Gerald Taylor: We could not get the association to move on a stronger agenda of blackness about Black Power and black struggle around specific things, the war in Vietnam; and there were a number of questions that we were trying to get the association to move on. It just became deeply frustrating. So, that was it. I eventually of was in a no man land. I met a guy by the name of John Cashin, black dentists out of Alabama who started the National Democratic Party of Alabama, a independent black-white political party in Alabama, like the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. It was a sister organization.
Gerald Taylor: I met John in Atlanta and said I wanted to come down and bring people back from the movement days and association to come down. That’s what I did. Went back to New York, organized some folks. We organized 200 black students to go to Alabama in 1970 for the election cycle. I worked out at John’s house as the coordinator for the project, and we had incredible success in 1970s on top of the ’68 success. It drove the Alabama Democratic Party, the Wallace Party, to eventually have to integrate at that point; and the NDPA went out of existence, like Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, because of the integration into the Democratic Party of Alabama.
Gerald Taylor: John’s a hero of mine. He passed a few years ago. Found my way back to New York, back to school; and Whitney Young said, “Look. I’d like you to serve on the National Board of Trustees of the Urban League.” I looked at the Whitney, and I said… I laughed. I said, “Well, I’m a poor black kid in Harlem. I ain’t got not money,” because this boy’s got all kinds of mega millionaires, CEOs. So, he said, “I know you. I know what you’ve done, and I want you to be on the board.” So, I went on the board in 1970, and Whitney Young became, again, another mentor for me.
George Goehl: Can you say a little about more about who he is just for people that… The younger generation might know.
Gerald Taylor: Oh, well, Whitney Young was the head of the National Urban League. The Urban League was formed in 1911 after the NAACP was, and it was a big social… Social workers. I mean, they made up the Urban League’s program and did a lot of programmatic service stuff. But Whitney Young, when he came into the leadership, transformed the Urban League into a civil rights organization on the frontline. So, the big four would have been Whitney Young, Martin Luther king, Roy Wilkins, and James Farmer. So, those are the big four, and Whitney was one of those of the big four.
Gerald Taylor: He died tragically in Africa, as everybody probably will remember. We hired Vernon Jordan to become the head of the Urban League, and I was on the board at that time. I stepped down, but Whitney Young was a wonderful mentor. I got into community organizing because I knew about Alinsky. Anybody who was in New York State knew about Alinsky because fight has started. So, I was curious. Started doing some, looking for organizing jobs. I was teaching at that time. I decided I was going to do something else.
Gerald Taylor: There was a project starting in Brooklyn, New York, in North Brooklyn. I don’t know if you know this period of time, George, the Decade of White Ethnics in America. I forgot. I think it was Carter’s administration. It was called the National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs headed by Msgr. Geno Baroni.
George Goehl: Oh, yeah.
Gerald Taylor: Okay. This group in North Brooklyn had gotten money to start a community organizing project, and they brought somebody in who had “Alinsky training” to be the consultants of the project. So, I applied for the job. So, I go up to interview, and I’m driving through North Brooklyn. This is white, ethnic central. There is a Polish neighborhood that is defined. There’s an Italian neighborhood that is defined. There is an Irish neighborhood that is defined. There’s an Hasidic Jewish neighborhood. There’s a Latino community and then black community, all defined by geographies. When you cross the street, you knew which community you were sitting in, you were walking into.
Gerald Taylor: I’m driving through there going, “God, damn. Where am I?” I don’t know nothing about these folk other than they were the enemy, I thought, for me when I was organizing in the movement. These were the folk that were going against us desegregating all. So, I said, “I’m not going to get hired, so I’m just going to go in and see what happens.” So, I go in for the interview. There’s a team of folk. Not one black person, I think, was on the team that day. I said, “Ah, hell. Let’s go ahead.”
Gerald Taylor: So, they asked me, “Why should you be hired?” I said, “Because I’m damn good at this.” And then they said, “Have you ever been arrested?” I said, “Do you only ask that of the black candidates, or do you ask that of everybody?” I didn’t care what I was saying. And I said, “Yeah, I’ve been arrested a number of times, et cetera, et cetera, in civil rights work.” And then there was a couple of other questions, and then that was it. So, I got out, got in my car, and said, “The hell with that. I’m over. It’s not going to get done.” That night I get a phone call. “You’ve been hired.” And I’m like, “Ah, hell. Now I got to figure this out.”
Gerald Taylor: I start this incredible journey organizing what became the Greenpoint Williamsburg Coalition of Community Organizations in the mid ’70s. Outside of National People’s Actions, our organizing in that little town created more negotiated agreements on bank redlining than any place in the country.
George Goehl: Wow.
Gerald Taylor: It was our founding convention was 700 delegates from 99 organizations, Polish, Irish, Italian, black, Latino, Jewish. Not Hasidic Jews, they didn’t believe in the State of Israel. We had a big debate over the flag being flown, and they don’t believe in the flag. So, they didn’t show up for the convention. But the rest of the Jewish community did. I could spend all night talking about my experiences learning how to organize that community. At that time, the word around the country was this guy, the only black person they knew who was organizing working class whites.
George Goehl: Yeah. What did you learn during that period?
Gerald Taylor: I learned how to listen, to suspend judgment about people that I didn’t know. I would go to this little Italian restaurant because the office was in the Italian part of the area, and I’d just sit in the restaurant. People would look at me at first, and then I’d just order. Everyday, I’d just order and get to know comfortable. My secretary was an Italian woman, and she asked me, “Look. My dad has passed. Would you be willing to come to the wake?” At that point, I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to be disrespectful, but I got all kinds of images in my head about Italians. I got the stereotypes, gangsters and everything else.
Gerald Taylor: I said, “I will come.” So, I went to the wake, and I said, “I’m going to eat everything they put in front of me, everything. I’m not going to deny nothing, no funny face.” So, they brought the pasta out. I chugged that down, and then they bring out the main course. Now, I don’t know what to do because I’m full, and I’m wrestling with how much can I actually eat. I don’t want to be disrespectful. They had a guy over in the corner. I had a few Italian words that I learned, and I heard him calling his cousin “the crazy cousin.”
Gerald Taylor: And I turned to him and went like this. And he said, “Oh, the black guy. He knows some Italian.” He comes over, and he grabs me and hugs me and whatnot. Boom, that’s the Italian neighborhood. That’s how I began to get settled. The Polish north side, I walked over at night to meet Adam Vaneski, the owner of a grocery store who was the leader of the Polish north side’s fight to keep their firehouse open. It was called the People’s Firehouse story. That period was a national story.
Gerald Taylor: The Polish community took over their firehouse and occupied it and stopped the city from taking it over, then learned all kinds of… They had some students came in and did studies on fire protection. But they took over. So, I’m trying to build this organizing efforts, so I go to over to the north side to meet Adam Vaneski. I go over there at night, and he says, “You must be some kind of organizer or crazy coming over here.” I said, “I’m both. Can we talk?” He laughs. So, we strike up a conversation, and we talk strategy. But I don’t go to any day meetings yet until Adam trusts me enough to say, “This guy is onto something. Let me invite him to the day meetings of the Polish leadership.” Of course, that begins, and we win the People’s Firehouse fight.
George Goehl: Wow.
Gerald Taylor: They keep the firehouse open; and the day they announced it, my name is one of the names they include in the people that helped them. These are grizzled veterans of World War II, freedom fighters that I got to know and love and admire and spend time with. I gave blood on the Polish North Side and laughed at that because I said, “You know what this means in America? When a black person gives you blood, one drop means you black.” And they fell out laughing about that. We just all laughed about that.
Gerald Taylor: I learned about the Black Madonna that was a key icon in Polish Catholicism and always asked, “How y’all wind up with a Black Madonna?” And we would talk about that, try to figure that out. I can go through each community. I did the same thing. I identified somebody. I got to know them. They invited me to something. I connected with folk, and then we went out to fight. One of the first fights was a abandoned warehouse building that was a major eyesore, a problem for crime and whatnot. It was on the edge of three of the communities, Polish, Irish, and Italian.
Gerald Taylor: The Trunz fight was the first major fight that we pulled everybody together on. The city refused to knock the building down. So, we went out there, knocked part of the building down, wrapped it up in wrapping paper. We got a bus. I remember State Senator Bartosiewicz brought his little school bus. We all piled on the school bus about, 85 to 100 of us, took all these rocks that we had broken off the buildings, the bricks and crap, got on the bus and to city hall. We were going to deliver them to Mayor Koch.
Gerald Taylor: Get there; the police are surrounding city hall. They know we’re coming because the press had been contacted. We get off the edge of the bus. The police guys come up, and you got to know New York. New York like Chicago, George, is the police captain comes and says, “You God damn son of a bitches. Get back on the bus and don’t get off.” “Screw you so-and-so.” And now we cursing back and forth, me going at him, him going to us. The white folk on the bus from the communities who didn’t really know me that some of the leaders knew who I was said, “That’s our man.”
Gerald Taylor: They got up, and they came down. Now, all of us are going at it. Eventually, they let us off the bus to drop off the presents on the steps. But that was the day that everybody said, “That’s our organizer.”
George Goehl: Wow.
Gerald Taylor: And it was off of that experience that I then… I met Arnie Graf who was working at IAF, who was on sabbatical. We had met doing some consulting work for Carter’s Commission on Neighborhoods, and I had read their piece on organizing for family and congregation. He said, “Look. Why don’t you just go see Chambers, and see if you’re interested in working for IAF.” So, I did. I went to see Ed. We met, and I found him to be the most interesting character I’d ever met in organizing before.
George Goehl: That’s a pretty big statement.
Gerald Taylor: He said, “You were young to be leading up an organization that size. It must’ve been a lot.” I said, “Yeah, it was. I stepped down eventually because of the pressure of trying to take people out into major actions and the fearfulness of somebody getting killed was on my shoulders at 17 and 18.” That was the first person I’ve asked me that. That was the first individual meeting, relational meeting that had ever been done that way with me. So, I go to 10-day training, and the weekends of the training, he says, “Look. I want to hire you.” And that was the beginning of my IAF; and 35 years later, I retired in 2014 after 35 years.
George Goehl: Wow. So, much to come back to here. First, I just love that notion of, “That’s our organizer.” That’s like a bridge we’re always trying to get over, I think. What are the things you think younger organizers need to be thinking about if they want to become that person for the members?
Gerald Taylor: It is a respect for culture, for people’s culture; an understanding that you start with people where they are, not where you think they should be; that you revel in their genius, their experiences, their music, their art, the way they walk and talk, and the food they eat. You listen to their stories, and you seriously look at that if you’re going to build something that’s going to be that complex in its mix that you have to create notions of respect across traditions and communities.
Gerald Taylor: You’ve got to fight for things that people all are going to benefit from. That organization fought to integrate their high school together as well as taking on the banks and the city. So, I say that’s critically important. They have to see you as useful to them, that you really bring something with them, to them, and a respectful need to understand and to learn that you’re there with them to really listen and learn from them, and then the application of what you do. If you’re good at what you do and as an organizer, if you have understandings, it’s to help apply that in that context. I think that’s been the case in every project I’ve ever organized.
George Goehl: Yeah. I can feel that.
Gerald Taylor: It’s bringing that to it. I think that’s critical to it, not the issue.
George Goehl: No.
Gerald Taylor: Issues come and go. They’re always going to be there, but what are you trying to build? What do you want to leave? I can remember, George, after the first convention, Maria [Liaza 00:19:10]… I was so exhausted; exhilarated, but exhausted after the convention. She said, “Come on. I’m going to take into to my house. You’re going to be able to take a shower and get yourself settled.” Now, you’ve got to think of what that image is, George; an Italian woman, married, bringing a black man to her house so that I can get myself rested and together to be able to go home. That experience for me was a transformative moment in my organizing life.
George Goehl: It’s amazing.
Gerald Taylor: It taught me so much, and it taught me that it was not impossible to build multi-racial organizations. I mean, people married from participation in that organization. People moved into neighborhoods, quietly, no issues. People went to college and schools based on their experience from that. One of the leaders became a professor and wrote about the Greenpoint-Williamsburg experience. It changed me.
George Goehl: Yeah.
Gerald Taylor: It did. Yeah.
George Goehl: You’ve built a ton of organizations. What’s it take to build an organization? What goes into it?
Gerald Taylor: I think the IAF experience, I think, taught me a lot about how we think about building capacity. I think one is you always think scale. You always think of, “How big do we need to build something to have significant influence in a city or a town or a county or a state?” Our approach was interesting, I always thought. People will come and say, “Can you help start an organization?” And we say back, “These are the conditions that have to be met before we’ll come in.”
Gerald Taylor: So, effectively, people have to self-organize before we actually even start sending an organizer in. So, you put conditions. How many churches have to be recruited, organizations? How much money do you have to raise? How many people have to commit to go to leadership training as conditions before you come into the place to work?
George Goehl: I love that.
Gerald Taylor: They effectively said, “You’re hiring us. We work for you, but these are the conditions upon which we will come to work.” Then they’re able to say to anybody, “These are no outside agitators. These are our people that we hire; and like the banks hire outside talent to come in and work for them, there’s nothing that says poor people and working class people can’t hire their own talent.” So, I think that’s a critical element. Scale, the willingness to do lots of relational work with people, the willingness to say to people, “Be patient. Issues come and go. Let’s build the capacity of our effort.”
Gerald Taylor: So, in every project that I think I started or went into, we had literally thousands of people that went through leadership training. In Memphis alone, we had 6,000 people go through house meetings together. We did not have one issue for the first couple of years. The issue was building the organization and training and study and training and study and worship and engaged in each other and raising the money together and putting black and white in the same room to negotiate this stuff. The willingness to build something that could get to enough power that you could challenge the governing framework of a place, not many organizations get to that moment.
Gerald Taylor: Then to get that kind of power means a long-term commitment to invest in people, in their learning. I’ve had organizers say to me, “Why are people not responding?” I said, “Because they’re not in this for the issue. They’re in this for what it means to them, their lives, how they’ve changed, how they see themselves differently, how they walk differently, how their church is different, how they’re different, and how that has translated into other things.” But that is why they’re in. If you’re not giving them that, if you’re not feeding them that, they’re going to walk away. They can take their time doing something else.
Gerald Taylor: So, that is then hardest lesson I think to translate to young organizers is that people don’t usually join these organizations because of the issue per se. You get a cut of those that do it; but if you want the talent, the leaders who have real deep networks and roots, they’re not in it for that. They’re in it for something else, something deeper, their faith, what they believe in, what they want for their children. That’s the willingness as an organizer to listen to them and then to build the organizing program around them and around what they’re willing to risk for.
Gerald Taylor: That’s what I always started with. What are they going to be willing to risk for? Because when they step out here into the public arena to fight, there are risks involved. There are potential blow backs. The people are going to come after you in some circumstances. So, if they’re going to go into this battle, they need to own it. I think if I’m saying anything to you is the joy of being connected to people to build something new that they didn’t think was possible to do together and to do it, even if it lasts for 15 years or 10 years or 20 years or 25 years. That experience never leaves most of the people that go through it.
George Goehl: What is a sponsoring committee? When you’re starting an organization, why is that an important step?
Gerald Taylor: Yeah. The process of building an organization starts with a sponsoring committee. That is the people who have the vision, the belief that this can be done and should be done and are willing to put their name to it, invest their money, their time to recruit, do all the things that are going to be necessary to get the project started. So, the sponsoring committee is not the organization. It is the birthing vehicle, if you want to think of it that way. And when I said to you there are conditions that were put on starting the project, that’s the sponsoring committee’s job. Recruitment of churches and institutions, unions, whatever that is; raising money that we helped them do; committing people to leadership training in significant numbers from the institutions that are represented.
Gerald Taylor: When those criteria are met, we go to a founding convention. The sponsoring committee is gone, and there’s a new leadership team that is elected or appointed at that point at the founding convention. So, the sponsoring committee, you either make or break an organizing drive by the sponsoring committee. If the sponsoring committee doesn’t work out well, you don’t go any further. So, those are the conditions, and there were places where people couldn’t get there. You had to say no to it.
Gerald Taylor: The Urban League did that. When it formed new Urban League affiliates, they had to meet certain conditions before they would be given a charter. The NAACP, when it formed its membership, you cannot form a chapter unless you meet certain criteria before you’re chartered. That became my understanding, and the IAF adopted a similar approach. But I learned that in the midst of that from all of my organizing experience in the movement and what the organizations and black organizations.
Gerald Taylor: The most successful, the most long lasting have been federations. They’ve been federated organizations that have multiple chapters and multiple places with the way for local people to self-organize themselves into chartering, into membership. Black fraternities, black sororities, Masons, black conventions, all of those organizations are, they’re federations. What’s the old rule we would say? Never do for people what they should do for themselves. People say it, but really if you mean it, you have to take it seriously and say to people, “If you want this, you have to organize towards it if it’s going to happen.
George Goehl: I love that. What have you learned about setting culture in an organization?
Gerald Taylor: That is probably the most important thing that can be done, and the lessons that I took from the NAACP were really helpful to me on how to figure out, understand culture. One, you have to get people to agree on the terms of being together. So, what constitutes a relationship, a public relationship with one another? One, we all bring money to the table. Second, we all bring people to the table. Third, we bring a commitment to joint learning together, to study and wrestling with questions around race, whatever those questions are that we need to look at.
Gerald Taylor: Respect for people. You don’t have to like anybody in the room, but you must respect them. Liking comes later. Then the respect then [inaudible 00:28:50] and the cultural building is how do you trust somebody? Because you got black and white in a room; but depending upon the city you’re organizing in, the place, you learn to trust somebody by the promises they keep to each other. So, we put in the front that we must keep promises to one another. If we choose to go out and do something and fight on something, we all go. If we go to your neighborhood and fight on something for this fight, you got to reciprocate the common fight for this neighborhood on their fight.
Gerald Taylor: That’s how you build trust is through the common understanding of keeping promises to one another. The culture of an organization has to be, I believe, invested in the training and development of its people. That is first and foremost the most central thing, because they have to own the organization.
George Goehl: Right.
Gerald Taylor: They have to believe in it, to give their money to it, to sacrifice for it, to reorganize their time to commit to it. It’s where unions are failing. I believe deeply that they see people as workers rather than whole human beings who live in communities who have faith, who have a sense of something beyond just the workplace that they are at. And if you don’t invest in that place, those communities where they live as workers, you are not going to win a major organizing drive in a Southern city.
George Goehl: Right?
Gerald Taylor: AKA Alabama.
George Goehl: Right.
Gerald Taylor: Amazon.
George Goehl: Yeah.
Gerald Taylor: You can go through the list of the failures that they had in that campaign. So, that is the investment, the belief that you train and develop talent, that that is almost your primary work, define talent, to put them in position to succeed as organizers. Then you go out. Then you go out, and you begin to try to do what you need to do in a place. The Montgomery bus boycott is essential learning, I think, for all organizers because of the discipline and the skill of the people and what they did. It was led by black women, not Dr. King. He was recruited by the leadership, but it was black women who led that fight, who started it, who helped organize it, who began to get the boycott together.
Gerald Taylor: It was black business owners, black farmers who had land and property where they could meet at when the city was going to call. I mean, all of that, the taxis, the cars that people had to travel people, or people walking, all of that was coordinated. All of that was powerful, organizing, boycott, a boycott that lasted over a year. Those are the lessons for organizing for me that how do we build enough capacity and power to really negotiate the governing framework? Not constantly going to the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, say, “Do this for us. Do this for us. Do this for us.” But no. Having enough power that they have to come to the table to negotiate with our independent vehicles, whatever those are.
Gerald Taylor: And it’s not just winning. It’s not just power to get recognized, power to get to the table to negotiate, but power to hold them accountable at the end of the negotiation when you get a deal. That’s a different kind of power that’s required.
George Goehl: Yeah.
Gerald Taylor: It’s a different understanding of it and the relationship of the governed to the government. And who makes that happen after the deal is cut? It’s bureaucrats.
George Goehl: Right.
Gerald Taylor: It’s administrators, and we’re not in those rooms most of the time when they’re cutting those deals. The corporate guys are there because they’re there 24/7. But if we don’t get that group of people, if we’re not organizing civil servants and the people who make the government run as part of the organizing at some point, we can never ensure that a cultural change is taking place in the inside of the governing infrastructure.
George Goehl: Reminds me, the other day you said to me, “What happens afterwards?”
Gerald Taylor: The day after, yes.
George Goehl: The day after after. What happens the day after?
Gerald Taylor: And the lessons from all the mobilizations that we do.
George Goehl: I mean, I feel like I was trained to be on the outside throwing rocks, not to be on the inside. So, yes. We’re in a pretty precarious moment as a country and have been and probably will be for a good stretch. If you were going to train a next generation of organizers, what are two or three things you just feel like are essential, especially in this period that we’re in?
Gerald Taylor: I would say we would need to train a generation to have the willingness, the guts to go into counties and states where they’re not going to be in the majority, to be willing to go in and fight for every county, every community, and do that with integrity. And that means to train them on how to do what I had to… Guess what I had to do in Greenpoint-Williamsburg? To have the willingness to go into rural communities and listen to people’s stories and their struggles and why they’re angry, why they may not… And they’re not going to get everybody. We know that in any organizing. We don’t get everybody.
Gerald Taylor: But a willingness to fight for every block because the the others who want this country to be a oligarchy, a anti-democratic state dominated by a minority of whites, they’re fighting for every block, every street. They will lie. They will cheat. They will create environments because they believe it’s an existential struggle that they’re in the middle of. And if we don’t understand that and recognize this and that our responsibility as organizers is not to… I’m writing a piece on this. Now, we’re talking about it, about this kind of population determinism, that somehow we’re going to grow the black and Latino, Asian population so much in the United States that we’re going to come to power automatically.
Gerald Taylor: That’s just determinism. That’s not going to happen that way. We’re not talking about how people are distributed geographically in the country. We’re not talking about the fissures inside of black community, the fissures inside the Latino community, all of that. No, it’s not going to happen that way. So, my feeling is that we need some creative way to go into these places at a scale in the Southeast, in the Southwest, in the Midwest, and maybe even going into the mountain states that have a populous history.
Gerald Taylor: I think if we can’t find a generation that’s committed to that work and to learn and to prepare for that work and the possibility we may have to create some new vehicles for that, maybe a new political party that is in the rural areas of the United States and those states that contest with the Democrats and the Republican Party in those states, I think we’re headed down a path that’s going to be extremely difficult. 2022, what are your odds that the Democrats hold the House and hold the Senate?
Gerald Taylor: So, if that’s the case, the states are dominated, 23 states, complete control by the Republican Party, the Trump party. Another seven, where they control the legislatures. So, that’s 30 states that they control fundamentally, key power, the power in those states. We may be able to… The so-called progressive, liberal community may be able to win national presidential races, but it gets problematic if you don’t have the states.
George Goehl: And if you don’t have any of the rural votes, you’re just-
Gerald Taylor: Yeah. I mean, and you can’t control the legislatures without those votes. There’s just no way to do that. So, I’m hoping that’s… What years I have left. You and I talked somewhat about this early on in our discussions. I’d like to aim at a different paradigms for organizing somewhat based on the work I learned in Greenpoint-Williamsburg but also the work I’ve learned in the rural South.
George Goehl: Yeah.
Gerald Taylor: That I think there are people who can be moved.
George Goehl: That’s right.
Gerald Taylor: But they’re going to have to be those of us who believe in it. They’re going to have to be people who have the initial resources who commit to it, not on an election two months before the election, but who say, “Look. Go and do this.” And we’re going to commit to seeding this for the next 10 to 15 years generationally to see if this can be… But that’s where I’m at, I think, because that’s what it’s going to take.
George Goehl: I want to do that together. So, next call-
Gerald Taylor: All right. I’m up. I’m up for it.
George Goehl: Last question, just real quick, you got a favorite organizing axiom?
Gerald Taylor: One of the IAF’s axioms I’ve always loved and we’ve always had is, the action is in the reaction. It’s not what you do. It’s how people react to what you do that is important, so that actions should be planned to get a particular reaction that you want and that too much of our organizing does not start with, “What is the reaction we’re going for, and how do we organize the campaigns to get the reaction that we want?” If we’re not getting the reaction that we want, then, damn it, the strategy working; and we got to rethink it.
Gerald Taylor: So I’ll leave you with that particular one. I’ve always felt that one makes a lot of sense. It always has been historically. I think it’s a universal.
George Goehl: It is a universal.
Gerald Taylor: That if you don’t understand that the action’s not what you do so much as what they do in response to what you do. And how do you want it to shape that? Can you shape their response to how you organize your campaign to get it, not just throwing yourself at something and thinking that’s going to change it.
George Goehl: I remember when I got taught that. I was like, “That would have been helpful the last six years. I would have had better strategy.” Gerald, this was great. You’re a treasure. I’m so glad to be reconnected and talking again.
Gerald Taylor: Well, George, same here. I am so glad that we reconnected. I am looking forward to whatever the journey is that we’re going to be on together next, and thank you for everything that you’ve done. I told all our folk in IAF then, I said, “I’m working with George and NPA on this banking stuff. And hell with what y’all think. I want to work with the young man.” It was one of the moments that I really have enjoyed in organizing was the time that we had together in that fight against the banks after the collapse and foreclosures. They’re going to be a couple of other people I’m going to bring in along with us on this, I think, who would want to be a part of this discussion.
George Goehl: I’m excited about those conversations.
Gerald Taylor: All right, man.
George Goehl: What a blessing. Gerald said the issue is the organization. Yeah, a diehard few may be there for the issues; but building a political home that is built to last, to withstand backlash from the opposition, that requires something more. In Gerald’s career, I hear someone constantly creating experiences of growth, of reflection, of solidarity, of people feeling seen.
George Goehl: That’s our organizer. Gerald’s story in Greenpoint-Williamsburg has me thinking of one of my own. When I first moved to Chicago, I was still early in my development. Unsure if an Indiana kid could get it done on Chicago’s west side, I’m pretty sure they sent me to a neighborhood that was not part of the plan. I developed a core of neighborhood leaders, and we had momentum out of the gate.
George Goehl: Then one day, me and a dozen new members were meeting on Tony Alvarez’s front stoop, ready to go door knock an issue. As we prepared, Victor, who lived next door, came out of his house and said, “Do we really need this George guy here?” I said, “Victor, I knocked on every door in this neighborhood and asked everyone what they most wanted changed; and so many people, including you, said getting this dilapidated factory torn down and turned into something good.” And that’s what we’re working on.
George Goehl: But if y’all don’t want me to be your organizer, that’s your call. I can go organize the next neighborhood or the next one after that. You got to decide. One after another, the dozen folks gathered on Tony’s front stoop said, “Victor, we were barely talking to each other before George showed up. Now we have a chance to change some things around here. This is our organizer.” And that was that. We got new trash cans. We forced the city to deal with the vacant lots, got the alleys paved. And we got the abandoned factory torn down and more.
George Goehl: But none of that was possible. If not for the moment where people in the neighborhood said, “This is our organizer,” a group that soon included Victor. I would ask the organizers listening in, if someone came at you, would the members say, “Hell, no. That’s our organizer. We are with him.” If not, reflect on what you need to do to make that the case. I think Gerald provides a lot of lessons in this conversation.
George Goehl: Scale, everyone loves to say the word, but what does it look like? When I hear Gerald talking about organizing in a mid-sized city and thousands of members going through leadership training and 6,000 attending house meetings as part of one organizing drive with just a few paid organizers, that sounds like actual scale, honest to goodness organizing with members playing the role of organizers.
George Goehl: If we’re going to fight for every block and for every county, I think we’re going to need a lot of that. You can learn more about Gerald Taylor and his work at peoplesaction.org/nextmove.
This podcast was produced by People’s Action and The Mash-Up Americans. It is executive produced by Amy S. Choi and Rebecca Lehrer. Our senior producer is Sara Pellegrini. Our development producer is Melissa Lo. Production manager, Shelby Sandlin.
- Gerald has a deep read on the history of populism in the U.S. and the populist moment we still find ourselves in today. His 2012 essay Prometheus Unbound: Populism, The Property Question, and Social Invention is essential reading on this. .
- Gerald also mentions Emma Bowen as an early teacher. She had a big impact on many lives, and still does through the Emma Bowen Foundation which seeks to diversify the voices in media.