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Gecan, Michael

GECAN, Michael

PERSONAL:

Born in Chicago, IL; Education: Yale University, B.A., 1971.

ADDRESSES:

Agent—c/o Author Mail, Beacon Press, 25 Beacon St., Boston, MA 02108.

CAREER:

Industrial Areas Foundation, Chicago, IL, organizer, became director for New York region.

WRITINGS:

(Editor) Charles A. Reich, Seen through Our Eyes, Random House (New York, NY), 1972.

Going Public, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 2002.

SIDELIGHTS:

Michael Gecan has drawn on his decades-long career as a community organizer in writing Going Public, a handbook for activists. Raised in Chicago, the young Gecan learned how power could harm and kill. He saw the mob shake down his father; in addition, he observed the Catholic Church's failure to exercise its power, which resulted in a fire that killed nearly 100 children and three nuns at Gecan's school because of a lack of adequate escape exits. Gecan came to realize that in order to bring about reform, it was necessary to battle power and institutions.

Gecan became an organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) in the 1970s. Trained by Saul Alinsky, whose Rules for Radicals became the traditional handbook for grassroots organizing, Gecan organized the East Brooklyn Congregations (EBC), a coalition of groups that represented the various religions. He taught them fundraising and empowerment and how to gain the support of community leaders and government officials who could assist them in reaching their goals. Their most significant achievement was the Nehemiah project, an effort that over the course of a decade was responsible for bringing 3,000 new homes to East Brooklyn. They also forced city government to rebuild area parks, and they formed their own consumer protection group that checked local supermarkets for cleanliness, freshness dates, accuracy of weights and measures, and temperatures at which refrigerated foods were held. Groups formed in the Bronx and Lower Manhattan built homes and schools and secured the reconstruction of East River Park. The groups worked together to win passage of New York City's first living-wage bill.

The IAF infuriated many city and borough leaders with their bold demands. When leaders of the Queens Citizens Organization set the agenda for a meeting attended by Mayor Ed Koch, he left in anger. Years later, when Gecan attended a private dinner at Gracie Mansion, Koch criticized the dictatorial way, he said, in which the IAF held its meetings. This time it was Gecan's turn to walk out. Koch later sent him an apology and another dinner invitation, which Gecan declined. However, the IAF worked with the Koch administration as well as it could, and made similar efforts with the administration of Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Tom Robbins wrote in the Village Voice that the IAF's method of organizing "appears to have worked. Today, IAF-spawned groups in New York regularly turn out crowds of 5,000 people for their rallies and events. Hundreds of those members, overwhelmingly black and Latino and residents of the city's most blighted neighborhoods, have developed keen organizing skills that make them formidable figures in local and citywide battles. They have also forged a remarkable record of public-policy and brick-and-mortar achievements."

Rosemary Bray McNatt reviewed Gecan's volume for UUWorld Online, saying that "half the fun of reading Going Public is hearing Gecan's many war stories that include calling recalcitrant politicians to account.… But just as energizing is his dogged belief that the creation of what he calls a 'third culture'—not simply bureaucratic, not simply market driven, but relational at its core—will salvage our badly damaged democratic life." Gecan writes that "the dynamic of the relational culture is created by leaders who initiate and deepen and multiply effective public relationships.… Their bottom line is not profit and loss … but expanding pools of reciprocity and trust among people who can act with purpose and power."

America contributor Christopher Franz noted that Gecan "sees the world divided not into two, but three sectors: the public sector (government), the private sector (market-based industry), and the 'relational' sector, in which he considers himself a 'relational worker.' He closes the book with a sort of manifesto, calling for a radical renewal of our cities, of school systems, and of both micro-and macro-economies based on new, realistic principles for the interrelationship of these three sectors." Library Journal's Jack Forman described Going Public as an "informative handbook for community organizers."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Gecan, Michael, Going Public, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 2002.

PERIODICALS

America, February 24, 2003, Christopher Franz, review of Going Public, p. 25.

Library Journal, November 1, 2002, Jack Forman, review of Going Public, p. 109.

ONLINE

UU World (Unitarian Universalist Association), http://www.uua.org/ (March-April, 2003), Rosemary Bray McNatt, review of Going Public.

Village Voice Online,http://www.villagevoice.com/ (October 23, 2002), Tom Robbins, review of Going Public.*

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