When I was approached by North Star to serve on their advisory board I didn’t play hard to get. Simply put, North Star is a serious operation devoted to, at its core, a deeply held value of my own: building a more democratic nation and world. And they do this in a serious way: North Star’s programs empower people to take responsibility for their social and political futures. It nurtures grassroots organization building—when you have organization, then you have power. And when you have power, you can be a counterbalance to all the un-democratic forces that persist in this society. North Star Fund is a bulwark, fighting to give voice to people who don’t get heard enough.
I’ve been engaged in grassroots activism and organizing since I was a political leader of the students who attended Pennsylvania’s public colleges in the mid 1970s. I moved to New York City in 1977 to work as an organizer for the then Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. It was a predecessor to the current union known as Unite Here. I was involved in the national campaign to organize the vehemently non-union J.P Stevens Textile Company, based in the Carolinas. We mounted a national boycott campaign by building coalitions with women’s groups, civil rights groups, and community, religious and student organizations concerned about human rights violations in the United States. There were thousands of textile workers in the South who were being denied their right to choose a union free from fear and intimidation on the part of employers.
I was working for a union with strong ideals about justice in the workplace and a commitment to civil rights, a union that made a 17-year commitment to organize that company. Our campaign won a union contract, so I moved to Washington in 1980 to work on foreign policy issues, principally nuclear disarmament, economic conversion and human rights. I worked as labor coordinator for the National Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, and then for the United Mine Workers of America as an organizer, publicist and writer. In 1991, I came back to New York City to serve as the founding Executive Director of New York Jobs With Justice—which has been funded by North Star Fund. In 1997, I became Director of the Union Leadership Program at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations—where I remain today.
All my experiences have brought me back to the importance of getting resources to the leaders of people pushed to the margins. North Star is an organization devoted heart and soul to this task and the foundation represents my own deepest personal moral and political values. I was raised on the New Testament; the Sermon on the Mount is my guidepost to life. The sermon calls us to commit to social justice, before anything else. It has so many great lines: “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.” “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.”
Of course, New York is on an estuary, not a hill—but we can still be that light of the world. North Star is a place where groups challenging injustice—anti-violence organizing, equal rights organizing, gay rights organizing—can go for support. Then it helps to build a network of diverse leadership that is organic to New York City, the most diverse city in history. That’s why I think it’s important to give to North Star, so that they can continue to give a hand up to groups that aren’t on anybody else’s radar. Yet.