A Conversation With Marshall Ganz

A Conversation With Marshall Ganz

The legendary organizer speaks on the “story of the self” and where Obama went wrong.


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.

“We started e-mailing and sharing our stories,” Ganz says. “I started telling him where the family came from.” He went to visit. “It’s strange when you drive up to this house and see a guy who looks like your uncle, and a little guy who also looks like your uncle. There you go; life has its surprises!” The newly minted grandfather found he shares a love of Harry Potter movies with his grandson.

But although the master storyteller will talk about this bizarre personal saga when asked, he is reticent on the details. In fact, when he tells the stories of his adventure-filled life, they tend to be about the world of his work rather than his relationships. It is the realm that Marshall Ganz most fully inhabits. He is always building new connections, new organizations, establishing working relationships with people in the world of education, business, religious studies, environmental activism, Middle East peace work and so on. His friend Ruth Wageman, a visiting faculty member in Harvard’s Department of Psychology with whom he worked on an extended project studying the leadership caliber and potential of the Sierra Club’s sixty-two local chapters, believes he chooses projects that carry a “moral punch,” that present a puzzle about developing on-the-ground leadership skills. Ganz says he’s most interested in taking on projects that will force him to learn something new.

In some ways Ganz seems to reinvent himself annually—like an elk growing a splendid set of antlers each year—compulsively moving on to new projects, new intellectual adventures, perhaps afraid his memories will run rampant if he stands still for more than a few minutes. He doesn’t sleep much and recharges not by relaxing but by interacting with other people—mostly decades younger than himself—and through finding new work challenges. Not long ago he got involved in projects with the Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative, and over the past year has traveled to Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and Israel several times. “He’s more or less chronically overcommitted,” notes Wageman. “He’s classically extroverted.”

Ganz is teaching himself Arabic using tapes from Rosetta Stone as well as immersing himself in the history of the region. He has worked on training programs at the Amman Institute and other leading Middle Eastern policy think tanks. In January 2010, he brought together Palestinians and Israelis in Jerusalem, helping them build and develop their leadership and negotiation skills.

“It’s very impressive,” says Hilary Rantisi, director of the Middle East Initiative. Rantisi has worked with Ganz on several training programs for Middle Eastern organizers brought to Cambridge to discuss ways to improve civil institutions in their home countries. “He’s invested a lot of time and effort into this. It’s refreshing to see.”

Another friend, Rebecca Henderson, of the Harvard Business School, calls Ganz “the truest intellectual of anybody I know. He is what I always dreamed of as an intellectual—widely read, using knowledge for public good.”

Ganz invites me to sit down at his kitchen table and immediately starts asking me questions: where I grew up, what my background is, what I studied in college, what I write about today. He wants to talk about me, or, rather, he wants me to talk about me. It’s what the man does. He empowers people by getting them to talk about their lives, getting them to communicate to audiences what motivates them, what gets them up in the morning, why they love the things they do. He convinces them that he cares about their stories, staring at them closely, engaged in their every word and coaxing out details. “The story of self,” he calls it. Tell that story well enough, he urges his students, and other people will come to care about these things too. And that’s how change occurs, that’s how “the story of now” develops.

* * *

Marshall Ganz’s father was a rabbi; his mother was a teacher. Shortly after World War II, with Rabbi Ganz attached to the Army as a chaplain, the family moved to Germany to minister to the needs of displaced persons. Ganz was only 3 when the family moved to Germany and 6 when they returned to the United States, but, he says, he clearly remembers seeing Holocaust survivors passing through. He still recalls the horror; still has a near-physical reaction when he thinks of all that pain.

A few years later the family moved to Bakersfield, California, at the southern end of the Central Valley, where Rabbi Ganz had found a job ministering to a small Jewish congregation. In 1960 Marshall went east to attend Harvard, but in short order he found himself spending more time on social justice organizing than on his studies. He took a break, went back to California, got involved in Berkeley’s nascent folk music scene. He returned to Harvard, but instead of resuming his studies, he fell in with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and in 1964 was working in McComb, Mississippi, during that year’s famous Freedom Summer. He roomed with Mario Savio.

It was, he recalls, a “joyful struggle,” not in the sense of things always going happily—this was, after all, the year three of his colleagues (James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman) were killed and numerous others subjected to beatings, bombings and other violence—but in the sense that it was so clearly righteous.

In the following years Ganz drifted further away from academia. He dropped out of Harvard, moved to California again, was introduced to Cesar Chavez and began working full time as an organizer. He started to see connections he had not previously seen between the struggles in the Deep South and the struggles of workers in the fields in California. In the spring of 1966 he helped put together the fabled 300-mile march from Delano to Sacramento (the marchers reached the State Capitol on Easter Sunday), which highlighted the harsh conditions faced by the state’s Mexican and Filipino agricultural workers.

Years later, after he parted ways with Chavez—he resigned from the United Farm Workers’ board in 1981, as the movement was fissuring—Ganz continued to work in California. He did more union organizing and community work and later helped bring grassroots organizing methods into the state’s Democratic Party. Over time he became something of an activist jack-of-all-trades.

In the early 1990s, the middle-aged Ganz returned to Harvard to complete his undergraduate degree (“class of 1964/ 1992,” he says). He stayed on to do graduate work, earning his PhD in 2000, and ended up teaching public narrative and other organizing strategies at the Kennedy School of Government.

Now, half a century after he entered Harvard, Ganz has solidified his reputation as one of the country’s leading organizers. To many of his friends, colleagues and students, he is akin to a guru or mentor. Few social justice organizers in America have a better understanding of what campaign strategies work and what don’t. Few have a stronger pedigree in the issues they have worked on and in the numbers of new organizers they have taught and nurtured.

Four years ago Ganz decided he wanted to get involved in the embryonic Obama-for-president movement and, in particular, to apply his public narrative techniques as a bedrock part of the presidential strategy. In 2004 Ganz had done some organizing sessions with Howard Dean’s campaign, which a number of his ex-students had found their way into. When Kerry emerged as the nominee apparent, Ganz was deeply disappointed by the renewed dominance of what he saw as a bland, passionless “consult-ocracy.” But later that year he was electrified upon hearing a radio broadcast of Obama’s “One America” speech to the Democratic Party convention. “I say, ‘Holy shit! This guy gets it!’ That there needs to be a values struggle here. The heart of the matter is the values that actually move us, that constitute who we are. It was like, ‘Ooooh, got it!’ This was a voice that could really make a difference in American politics.”

Two years later, he was liberally quoting from Obama’s convention speech while teaching courses on public narrative and moral leadership. Ganz viewed his classroom as a laboratory. He had recently finished a book, Why David Sometimes Wins, on why Chavez’s farmworker movement was so successful in comparison with other unions, like the Teamsters, that had tried and failed to establish a permanent presence in California’s fields. Yes, Goliath was more powerful than David; and, yes, if they’d chosen to fight using the expected weaponry of sword and shield, Goliath would have creamed his puny opponent. But by thinking outside the box—grabbing a slingshot instead of a sword—David had neutralized the big guy’s advantage. Chavez and his comrades, outfinanced, outmanned, opposed by business owners and law enforcement, viewed with suspicion by other labor leaders, had worked out a grassroots strategy that connected viscerally with impoverished, disenfranchised grape pickers. He had worked out a way to blend stories, to create a narrative binding workers and organizers into one large community.

Identifying your strengths and your opponent’s weaknesses, being willing and able to think outside the box, Ganz told his students, were core ingredients of good organization-building.

When Obama declared his candidacy, Ganz approached his friend and Kennedy School colleague Samantha Power, one of Obama’s senior foreign policy advisers, and asked her to broker his entry into the campaign. He felt there was room in the Obama candidacy to articulate a difference between the world as it is and the world as it could one day be, to create a situation in which David emerges the victor.

In April 2007 Ganz met with Obama and David Axelrod at Harvard. Intrigued by Ganz’s ideas, they invited him to campaign headquarters in Chicago the following month. In June, after a series of meetings, Ganz was charged with the task of setting up a Camp Obama network, intensive community organizing–style training camps in which young people would be taught to tell Obama’s story, to spread a message and generate the enthusiasm of a true grassroots movement. Its success was phenomenal, ultimately generating one of the most effective and broad-based presidential campaigns in American history.

While media consultant Axelrod was the numbers brain, the wonk behind the campaign’s caucus-and-primary strategy, Ganz was the brains behind the movement-building. No one, including Obama, understood what made the campaign so effective, so good at connecting with young people in particular, so able to fill the vacuum created by the collapse of old loyalties and coalitions, better than Ganz. He understood how to unlock the “prophetic imagination” of youth; the willingness to take the world from where it is to where you want it to be. “The blending of a grassroots organizing capacity with Obama really worked,” he argues. “But it wasn’t because Obama was telling anybody to do it.”

“The first thing we taught was story,” explains Ganz. “It was tapping into that moral resource and coupling it with strategy and leadership.” Shared values, he told the volunteers, lead to viable relationships and shared commitments. These make it easier to build organizational structure, to generate effective electoral teams, which makes the development of effective strategy possible and makes it more likely that you will attain desired political outcomes.

* * *

These days, two years after Obama’s historic victory, with the country mired in a politics as polarized and ugly as it has ever been, the question keeps coming up, Where’s the energy, the communication methods, the movement passion of the Obama campaign now that he’s president? Where has it all gone? One answer is, It’s at Harvard, at the Kennedy School of Government, in the person of Marshall Ganz. To the follow-up question, What can Obama do to regain the energy of his golden 2007–08 years? a good starting point for an answer would be to bring Ganz and his organizing protégés back into the center of Obamaland.

President Obama, Ganz says ruefully, seems to be “afraid of people getting out of control.” He needed the organizing base in 2008, but he and his inner circle were quick to dismantle it after the election. Yes, Ganz concedes, they kept Organizing for America, with its access to the vast volunteer databases, alive; but they made a conscious decision to neuter it, so as to placate legislators who were worried about the independent power base it could give Obama. Following a meeting of key members of the transition team, they placed it under the control of the Democratic National Committee. It became, if you like, something of a house pet. Yes, President Obama proposed, and continues to propose, many good policies; but, the community organizing guru concludes, the fire, the passion and the moral clarity were left out of his postelection rhetoric.

Returning to his kitchen table after a brief quest amid the clutter for his eyedrops, Ganz surveys what’s left of candidate Obama’s promise to deliver a cleaner, more uplifting style of politics. After winning in November 2008, Obama and his inner circle wanted to control the terms of the debate rather than be pushed from below by a chaotic, empowered, activist community. They wanted to shift Obama’s leadership style, Ganz believes, from the transformational aura of his candidacy to something different; they wanted him to be a transactional leader, a maker of deals, a compromiser in chief.

“He’s not a bad man,” Ganz says of the president. “His policy intent is not bad. But you don’t have the opportunity to change history every day. The Obama campaign excited the whole world. It created an opportunity to build capacity and do real movement-building.”

In losing sight of that historic opening, and in tamping down the activist energies the campaign had unleashed, President Obama’s inner circle lost a chance to change the country he leads. And then, intellectual polymath that he is, Ganz quotes the medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides. “Hope is belief in the plausibility of the possible as opposed to the necessity of the probable.”

“Understanding the sources of strategic capacity can help to explain why the powerful do not always stay powerful,” Ganz wrote in his book on the farmworkers’ movement. “And thus why David sometimes wins. But remaining David can be even more challenging than becoming David in the first place.”

Homepage image courtesy of Union Education

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy