Harvard professor gives talk at Heller School

February 1, 2019

A Harvard professor recounted his personal journey advocating for fair elections and unionizing farm workers at the talk, “The Democratic Promise: People, Power, and Change.”

Professor Marshall Ganz, Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, visited The Heller School on Wednesday to talk about how to fulfill the democratic promise.

According to Ganz, fulfilling the democratic promise of equity, accountability and inclusion requires the participation of an “organized” citizenry that can articulate and assert its shared interests effectively.
Ganz is a prominent educator, organizer and movement builder with decades of experience in organizing communities to mobilize and build power to create positive social change. He discussed leadership, people, power and change, as well as his experience with organizing.

Ganz grew up in Bakersfield, California, where his father was a rabbi and his mother a teacher. He entered Harvard College in the fall of 1960. He left a year before graduating to volunteer with the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project, saying “I didn’t see the point of studying history, when I was busy making it.” The Mississippi Summer Project was a volunteer effort to try to register as many African American voters as possible in Mississippi.

He discussed how the night before the volunteers were supposed to go to Mississippi, three members of the group disappeared, and were presumed dead. They had been murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. He spoke about how this experience tested his courage, however, coming from a family of Holocaust survivors, he was motivated to continue his activism.

For three years after World War II, his family lived in occupied Germany, where his father served as a U.S. Army chaplain working with displaced persons. Having encountered survivors of the Holocaust, his parents taught Marshall about the dangers of racism and anti-Semitism.

“Racism kills. As a rabbi’s kid I loved the Passover seder. They were like the story of the Exodus, but with food. They point at children and say, ‘You were slaves in Egypt.’ Not you literally — but you have to figure out who you are in this story. You need to figure out if you’re holding people back or helping people through.”

He found a “calling” as an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and, in the fall of 1965, joined Cesar Chavez in his effort to unionize California farm workers. During his 16 years with the United Farm Workers he gained experience in union, political and community organizing, and became Director of Organizing.
Ganz’s experience with the farm workers led him to formulate his concept of “strategic capacity.” He says this explains how Chavez’s farmworker organizing succeeded. Ganz defines strategy as “how we turn what we have, into what we need, to get what we want.”

Ganz states that the key is to remember that leadership is distributed. No one person or group of people holds all the power; responsibility is shared in a sustainable way, and structure aims to create mutual accountability.
In 1991 he returned to Harvard College and, after a 28-year “leave of absence,” completed his undergraduate degree.
He was awarded an MPA by the Kennedy School in 1993 and completed his PhD in sociology in 2000, and was asked to develop a course. As senior lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government, he teaches, researches and writes on leadership, organization and strategy in social movements, civic associations and politics.

He has been published in the American Journal of Sociology, American Political Science Review, American Prospect, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. He was awarded an honorary doctorate in divinity by the Episcopal Divinity School in 2010.

The event was put on by the Relational Coordination Research Collaborative (RCRC) jointly with the Graduate Student Association and Brandeis European Graduate Students Association.

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