REA 2013 conference: Marshall Ganz

Marshall Ganz was the main speaker at the first plenary session of the Religious Education Association annual conference. Ganz is a senior lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Ganz dropped out of college in 1964 to work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the Mississippi Summer project; following his time with SNCC he worked with Cesar Chavez for 18 years.

In order to talk about leadership and organizing, Ganz began by quoting Rabbi Hillel, from the Pirkei Avot: “Hillel used to say: If I am not for myself who will be for me? Yet, if I am for myself only, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Avot 1:14)

Ganz pointed out that the first of these questions is not about being selfish, but about caring for oneself. Hillel’s second question forces us to realize that we are inevitably wrapped up with others. And the third question prompts us to find a middle way between “jumping off a cliff” on the one hand, and getting ensnared by endless preparation on the other hand. Ganz said that these are questions, not answers — so Hillel was not urging us to assert control in order to avoid uncertainty, but rather to find purpose through “embracing uncertainty.”

Thus leadership is a set of practices in which the leader accepts responsibility, and enables others to achieve a purpose under conditions of uncertainty; leadership is also a form of social interaction. So leadership is less about a person or a position of authority than it is about purpose and real-world work that needs to be done.

Ganz then turned to organizing as a specific form of leadership. The leader as organizer begins by asking, “Who are my people?” The organizer enables people to come together, to become a constituency, a people that can stand together.

Ganz traced the tradition of organizing back to Moses and the Exodus story. “I grew up on the Exodus story, those Passover seders,” said Ganz, whose father was a rabbi. “You hae to ask yourself, where are you in that story, are you those guys in the chariots, or are you those guys trying to escape?”

He also knew, from his father’s work after the Second World War in helping Holocaust victims in Germany, how dangerous racism could be. “Racism kills, that’s it. Turn people into objects, and anything goes,” he said. So working for the Civil Rights Movement was a good fit for him. During his work with SNCC, he learned the difference between charity and justice, and he learned the importance of power. Paul Tillich’s book Love, Power, and Justice futher helped him understand that if you want love to do its work, then you have to take power seriously.

The challenge of the organizer, then, is to find resources that a community already has and turn those resources into power. The Montgomery bus boycott was a perfect example of that, when the community learned that they had a resource — their ability to walk instead of taking the bus — that they could turn into power. In a relevant aside, Ganz noted that Martin Luther King learned his leadership and organizing skills in church; and churches are another resource that communities may have.

In doing the work of organizing, Ganz said that emotions — our affective side — are very important. He said that the way to engage people’s emotions, and help them “map the world affectively,” was through stories. Our faith traditions tell us stories in order to demonstrate to us that we have agency, to teach us how to be “choiceful human beings.”

Ganz said when telling stories to begin with a “story of self.” Next turn to a “story of us”: why we are called together, why we are connected. Then end with a “story of now”: what is the challenge to our values right now? Obviously, telling stories is not enough. “Telling a good story is a good thing to do,” he said, “but without strategy … it goes nowhere.”

After the conclusion of his talk, in response to a question from the audience, Ganz said, “There’s a pedagogical implication in this.” He called for us all to embrace a pedagogy that “embraces head, heart, and hands.”

Other speakers at the first plenary session were Larry Gordon of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization and Rev. Matt Karaker of Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries.

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