Arnie Graf: 2015 Change Champion in Community Organizing

by Melissa Hewitt | July 8, 2015 12:08 pm

Kate Casa contributed to this article.

It was the mid-1960s and Arnie Graf, a 19-year-old student at the mostly segregated University of Buffalo, found himself witnessing discrimination in a very personal way. “Being Jewish, we had separate fraternities and groups by the charters that were in place,” he recalls.

One place that did welcome students of all backgrounds was the recreational basketball league, which Arnie joined. At the end of a winning season the team went out for a drink, but “when I went to the bartender to get the beer for the table, and was denied service because one member of our team was African American, I lost my cool and started cursing at the bartender.”

Two bouncers threw Arnie out of the bar.

It didn’t take long for him to learn how to curb his temper and channel his powerful emotions and experiences into community organizing. Arnie cut his organizing teeth in the civil rights movement – in protests, sit-ins, arrests, and demonstrations – when recruiters came to campus as part of the Congress of Racial Equality (C.O.R.E.). The group helped to break the color barrier at the university as well as at banks, department stores, and restaurants. Meanwhile, Arnie’s thinking was also taking shape through his reading — Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright’s Native Son. “I became politically aware through the experience with C.O.R.E. and changed the direction of my life,” he said.

Some 50 years later, the hot-headed student has been replaced by a wise, soft-spoken, silver-haired man transformed by the poverty of Appalachia, the classrooms of New York City, the struggles of West Africa, and the endurance and hope of some America’s most gritty, forgotten neighborhoods. But a long list of successes speaks to the fire for justice that still burns within Arnie Graf.

After teaching in Sierra Leone with the Peace Corps and in the New York City public schools, Arnie returned back to those early experiences organizing and began to work among poor, white communities in Appalachia with the Welfare Rights Organization in Harlan County, Ky. A short time later, he connected with Saul Alinksy, who was pioneering a model of democratically-run community organizing that became the prototype for low-income communities across the United States

In 1971, Arnie became part of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), the nation’s first and largest network of multi-faith, broad-based citizens’ organizations, which for seven decades has been winning tough battles on housing, health care, education, living wages, immigration rights and other issues. With IAF, Arnie worked to develop durable community power bases in Baltimore, Boston, San Antonio, and Washington, D.C. and helped to develop and pass the first living-wage law in the country in 1994.

“With the IAF I had the opportunity to organize throughout the country with some wonderful organizations,” Arnie said.

A memorable win was in Baltimore, where congregations and members of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) decided to take on the issue of work and wages. Arnie began working with BUILD in 1992 and helping them explore why so many of the member congregations of BUILD were experiencing a huge influx of families using their meals assistance programs.  What BUILD found was that many of the residents who relied on social services offered by BUILD were low-wage workers in service jobs who worked for contractors hired by the city. That led to BUILD’s demand that the city include living-wage standards – defined as a wage that could bring a family of four above the poverty line – in all of its service contracts. The city passed the measure in 1994, but BUILD continued the campaign, winning protections for contract workers from discrimination for organizing activity, and developing the first worker-owned temporary employment agency in the country.

Arnie himself would go on to train leaders in South Africa in the weeks after apartheid fell; and in 2010, he waded into politics as an advisor to the U.K. Labour Party with a direct mandate from Labour leader Ed Milliband to help the party reconnect to its grassroots.

But ask him about his most enduring contribution to social justice, and Arnie will tell you it’s the scores of organizers and thousands of leaders he has trained. A notable one was a young ACORN organizer named Deepak Bhargava, who today is executive director of the Center for Community Change.

“Arnie has been one of the most important people in my life,” said Deepak. “His way of being and working has inspired me, and his coaching and mentorship has brought out the best in me as a leader.”

CCC’s 2015 Change Champion Awards will recognize Arnie Graf’s remarkable record of building powerful organizations, developing leaders, training organizers, and forging powerful strategies on reinvestment, housing, and living wages. We will celebrate Arnie, Metro IAF, and three other honorees at our annual Change Champions Awards on Sept. 17 at the historic Howard Theater in Washington, D.C. For more information and tickets, go to http://www.communitychange.org/awards/

Melissa Hewitt

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