Marshall Ganz opens the door to his large frame house on a residential street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Outside, a freezing late autumn rain is falling hard. Inside, it’s warm, calm. An eighteenth-century wind quintet, Mozart perhaps, is playing in the background. There are books everywhere, CDs stacked high—Ganz is a confessed opera fanatic—artwork lining the walls. A little painter’s palette resting atop a bookshelf filled with cookbooks is emblazoned with a quote from Claude Monet. It is ordered chaos, a clutter of intellectual themes and competing cultural expressions.
Over the old kitchen stove is an even older AFL-CIO sign: Union House. It’s an understatement. The occupant of the house is one of America’s great organizers, a man who has spent half a century organizing everyone from impoverished African-Americans in 1960s Mississippi to California farmworkers, from environmental advocates and Middle Eastern activists for women’s rights to the legions of young people who flocked to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008.
Early on, Ganz realized Obama’s ability to connect with his audiences through his powerful voice, his ability to weave a personal narrative into a larger political morality tale. Back then he felt Obama had a rare opportunity to transform America’s political culture; more recently, he has written, sorrowfully, in a widely disseminated op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, about how the president has “lost his voice.” Why that might be the case is the central question Ganz grapples with these days. It’s more than a political conundrum; it is, somehow, almost an existential challenge.
Ganz, 67, is a large man, barefoot, wearing brown slacks and an untucked white T-shirt. His receding gray hair flows off his head, unkempt. Colleagues can hardly recollect ever seeing him in a jacket and tie. He doesn’t dress like your typical Harvard professor, they say affectionately. Then again, he doesn’t really act like your typical Harvard professor, either.
“He wants the world to be a better place; but he’s always engaged in making it so,” says Elizabeth City, 38-year-old executive director of the Doctor of Education Leadership Program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. She has been working with Ganz recently to develop classes for grad students interested in becoming transformational education leaders and administrators. She stops, pauses, looks out her window. “He’s still trying to take on the whole world, as opposed to his little niche in it. He’s really unlike anyone else I know. There are only a few people I know who genuinely seem interested in each person they meet; he sees possibilities more than most people.”
A couple of days earlier Ganz, a lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government, had flown back from some work in Syria. The next morning he was due to fly to San Francisco; with a bit of luck, he’d have time to indulge in his favorite relaxation while there: heading down the coast to Monterey to walk along the bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. In between, he had had outpatient cataract surgery on his left eye, which was covered with a large metallic surgical mesh taped to his cheek and forehead.
Ganz is a widower—his wife, Susan, also an organizer, died of leukemia in 2003. A few years ago he found he has an adult son, the product of a liaison in the 1960s. He had been given up for adoption at birth and decades later tracked down his birth parents. Ironically, the son, born when Ganz was a full-time organizer with California’s farmworkers, is now a peach grower in the Central Valley. He is married and has a young son of his own. Ganz, who had never had the time or inclination to nurture a family—“In the world of organizing there was a whole ethic about submersion of self into the work. It was wrong,” he says ruefully—suddenly found he had one waiting for him on the other side of the continent.