Before He Led National Movements, He Was One of the "Have Nots"

The kind of music a person enjoys offers telling insights into their personality. So in a recent interview with George Goehl, Executive Director of National People's Action (NPA), I asked "What is your favorite song and who is the artist?" His answer in a moment ...

Based in Chicago, George is kind of big deal in the world of professional organizing. He has orchestrated successful national campaigns on housing, banking and immigration issues, and under his leadership NPA moved more people into the streets in support of financial reform in the wake of the financial crisis than any other organization in the country. A December 3, 2012 article in The Nation, calls George one of the "intellectual gurus" behind the Occupy movement.

And while George today heads an organization that "has become a powerful force for economic justice in America" (according to that same article in The Nation), he was not too long ago one of the "have-nots" in this country. In a March, 2012 interview with Bill Moyers (below), George talks about that period of his life and how it led directly to his work today (23 minutes in).

So back to the music question. This is what George had to say: "If there is an afterlife and I could only take one song with me, it would be Out of This World by John Coltrane. If you haven't heard it, you really should." Frankly, I wasn't surprised to learn that George is a jazz man. Like good jazz, building large-scale social movements requires collaboration, syncopation, and improvisation. Trombonist J. J. Johnson said, "Jazz is restless. It won't stay put and it never will." I think the same could be said about George Goehl.

As you read the following interview, I encourage you to listen to Out of This World in the background. It'll add to the experience.

1. IN JUST ONE SENTENCE, WHAT IS YOUR PURPOSE IN LIFE? To raise a happy, sharp and thoughtful daughter. And then, with my free time, help shift the political and ideological landscape of this country toward the direction of economic and racial justice.

2. HOW HAS THIS WORK CHANGED YOU? This work has made me 100 percent certain that each of us has the power to create incredible change, if we are ready to organize, be strategic and face our fears.

3. WHAT DO YOU GET FROM GIVING? I believe the role of the organizer has long been a sacred one in society. It is the job of starting where people are at. Of bringing people together around a shared vision of justice. And then moving numbers of people to action that is powerful enough to transform reality and the human spirit. Any person who earns the right to that role in society is the one receiving the gift.

4. WHO IS A LIVING HERO AND WHAT WOULD YOU ASK THEM IF GIVEN THE CHANCE? Rev. James Lawson. His mix of intellectual, strategic and spiritual vigor is rare. I would ask him how he thinks the practice of non-violence in this moment could transform our politics and our economics.

5. WHAT EVERYDAY RESOURCES COULD HELP YOU ACHIEVE YOUR PHILANTHROPIC GOALS? We are engaging more and more volunteers through our national office. We need help with things ranging from phone canvassing, graphic design, data entry, building out technological infrastructure and more.

6. WHAT IS A BURNING QUESTION THAT YOU HAVE FOR THIS COMMUNITY? What risks have you considered taking in the name of creating change, but not yet moved on? What's standing between where you are now, and where you want to be as a change-maker?

7. WHAT WOULD THE TITLE OF YOUR BOOK BE? Bringing the Crisis to Those Who Created It

8. TELL US SOMETHING YOU RARELY SHARE IN PUBLIC? I became an organizer because I was having some hard times and ended up at a soup kitchen in Southern Indiana. I eventually became a dishwasher at the kitchen. Three years later I was still working there. I was in the kitchen and I looked out at the line of people. Most of the people that were in line were there when I first came in to eat. I decided I needed to figure out how to get at root causes of poverty. Soon thereafter, a number of us started organizing. Haven't looked back since.

9. WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR OTHERS WHO ASPIRE TO BE CITIZEN PHILANTHROPISTS? With the level of economic and political inequality in the United States and across the world it will take bold action to shift things. For us to create the level of change needed, it will have to get uncomfortable. We all have to lean into that discomfort, we will have to take risks, we will have to go out into deeper waters and convince others to come with us. Because there are a set of people and institutions that are incredibly happy with the way political and economic power have been consolidated in the hands of a few. And if we can count on anything, it's that they are not going to give it up without a fight.

10. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE INSPIRATIONAL SAYING? The answer to this question changes by the day. Today it would be these lyrics from a song called "Pass it On," by Millard Lampell:

Freedom doesn't come like a bird on the wing...
Doesn't fall down like the summer rain.
Freedom. . .freedom is a hard-won thing.
You have to work for it, fight for it, day and night for it
And every generation has to win it again!
Pass it on to your children, Brother.
Pass it on to your children, Sister.
They've got to work for it, fight for it, day and night for it.
And every generation has to win it again.