The longtime UFW activist, who was there when RFK was shot, is now
putting his passion to work for Barack Obama.
By Scott Martelle, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
June 15, 2008
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. -- Forty years ago Marshall Ganz, a top field
organizer for Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers union, watched in
confusion as Bobby Kennedy left a stage at Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel.
Ganz was supposed to whisk him away to thank a roomful of farmworker
volunteers who had just helped him win the 1968 California Democratic
presidential primary. But Kennedy was heading toward the kitchen.
Before Ganz could catch up, the room erupted in screams and yells.
Robert F. Kennedy had been shot.
"Talk about feeling history just falling through your fingers," Ganz said.
Ganz is sitting at his kitchen table as he tells the story, one in a
series of personal narratives from his life as a rabbi's son in 1950s
Bakersfield, a civil rights worker in Mississippi in the 1960s and,
later, a key figure in the United Farm Workers' boycotts.
They are stories of faith and betrayal, love and hate, hope and
And if Barack Obama succeeds in his historic quest for the White
House, the Illinois senator will owe a large debt to Ganz's passion
for such narratives -- and for the way this graying, portly man
taught Obama's top field organizers to weave thousands of individual
volunteers' stories into a social movement.
Ganz, 65, has no official role in the Obama campaign. But when key
Obama organizers run into a problem, they look to Ganz, who teaches
organizing and leadership at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy
School of Government.
When the Obama campaign held a series of "Camp Obama" training
sessions around the country last summer, Ganz was brought in to hold
two-day discussions of personal narrative and leadership.
Campaign officials estimate that 200 to 300 organizers were trained
at about a dozen Camp Obamas -- three of them co-led by Ganz.
The effort's biggest success came in caucus states like Iowa, where
tightknit organizations were better able to get people to the meeting sites.
But grass-roots efforts also paid off in South Carolina and Wisconsin
and helped keep the margin small in Indiana.
Ganz's "style of organizing really does speak to who Barack is as a
candidate," said Obama field organizer Buffy Wicks, 30, who ran the
campaign's grass-roots efforts in California and Texas.
"Marshall really believes in empowering people and teaching them how
to become community organizers."
Maggie Fleming, who attended a Camp Obama last summer, said:
"Marshall is able to bring this bigger picture of his work with civil
rights and with the farmworkers and [connect] people to this idea
that this is bigger than just one candidate."
Fleming, 28, the assistant director of a nonprofit environmental
education group, later helped form the core of Obama's grass-roots
committee in Oakland.
Ganz encourages volunteers to share their own life stories with
voters, in the belief that by speaking from the heart, they turn the
tedious -- phone-banking, door-knocking -- into a communal mission.
It's not policy but passion that he teaches.
"It's counterintuitive," Ganz said. "At Camp Obama the tendency is,
'I need to know all of the arguments.' No. You need to learn to talk
from your own experiences. It's a very empowering thing."
For Ganz too. He sees the campaign as a chance to turn back the hands of time.
Ganz was born in Bay City, Mich., and grew up in Fresno and then Bakersfield.
He entered Harvard in 1960 but after two years took some time off.
When he returned to Cambridge, he found that one of his roommates had
joined Students for a Democratic Society and another had joined the
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
He volunteered for the Freedom Summer of 1964 in Mississippi and was
in training when volunteers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael
Schwerner disappeared. They were found dead several weeks later.
Ganz decided to forge ahead -- and found his life's work.
"I had friends involved in SDS, and they would have these big
ideological discussions, which never had any appeal to me," Ganz
said. "What worked for me was to work with the people, going around
and meeting people."
As a way to connect with the black community, the rabbi's son taught
adult Sunday school in Mississippi -- Old Testament only. Ganz
returned to the Central Valley in 1965 and soon joined Chavez's
fledgling farmworkers union, where he helped organize workers, lead
boycotts and negotiate contracts until internal divisions led him to
quit in 1981.
He then moved into political organizing full time, targeting infrequent voters.
The strategy turned out 180,000 new voters, primarily in low-income
Latino and black neighborhoods, who helped Sen. Alan Cranston win a
tight reelection battle in 1986.
In 1991, 28 years after he left, Ganz was back in Cambridge, where he
earned a master's degree and, in 2000, a doctorate and then marked
another transition: from student to teacher.
Ganz stands at the front of a Harvard lecture hall, a diet Dr Pepper
on the table in front of him. About 80 students fill the room, some
from the Kennedy School, others from the Divinity School.
"Today we get into leadership," Ganz says. It is a skill most needed
during times of uncertainty, he says, and best done by forming teams.
"Do not try to organize your project alone," he says, a titter moving
through the crowd. "Get other people to help you. . . . It's not so
much about exercising your own leadership as it is developing the
leadership capacity of others. That's where the power comes from."
For the next 80 minutes, Ganz lectures a bit but also poses
questions. He doesn't nudge the students toward any specific
engagement, but it's clear that several have the political bug.
For a class project, Norena Limon, 25, of Chino was planning to skip
a few days of classes to help Obama's grass-roots efforts out of state.
Limon represents the long-term challenge for the Obama campaign --
and for Ganz: how to harness and nurture the enthusiasm of the young
and the idealistic, whose energy could dissipate if Obama fails to
win the White House.
Ganz has faith that the seeds have taken root. If Obama loses, many
of the disenchanted will disengage. But others will stay involved as
community activists. They will organize others.
Forty years after history slipped through Ganz's fingers, he feels
"I just love the fact that hundreds of organizers are going to be
unleashed on the country," he said, sitting with his coffee mug at
the kitchen table amid all those stories.
It's Marshall Ganz's army, and it's marching your way.