HOTSEAT- Life isn't fair: But Szakos is doing something about that

Joe Szakos

The fresh-faced student protestors lock themselves here and there, camp out on the President's lawn, but Joe Szakos keeps quietly demanding that UVA and various local businesses pay their lowest-ranking workers a "living wage."

Szakos was organizing before he knew what organizing was, and now he wants other people to know what organizers do. He's written a book with his wife, Kristin, called We Make Change: Community Organizers Talk About What They Do– and Why.

"I've been doing organizing for about 29 years," says Szakos, executive director of the Virginia Organizing Project. Unlike a carpenter or plumber, when Szakos says he's a community organizer, people ask what that means. "It's hard," he notes, "finding staff people when you say you're looking for a community organizer."

More infuriating, about five years ago, Szakos was at the Richmond library looking for a children's book that would tell kids how to be organizers when they grow up. There was nothing in the children's section– or in the adult section.

"We punched in community organizer, community organizing," recalls Szakos. "There was nothing in the children's section, nothing in adults'." He came home and checked on Amazon for books about his profession, and again, zip.

Szakos started carrying a little recorder with him, and when he met with organizers, he'd ask them to talk about themselves and explain why they do what they do. Eighty-one interviews later, "I realized we had some really powerful stories," says Szakos. "Then I realized we had to find a publisher."

Vanderbilt Press took the bait, and Kristin edited and organized 2,500 pages of transcripts. "The strategy was to raise the voices of the organizers themselves the same way organizers try to raise the voices of the people they work with," says Szakos.

With the help of musician John McCutcheon, the book launches June 21 at Buford Middle School.

He describes growing up a working class kid in Jeannette, Pennsylvania, 28 miles east of Pittsburgh. His father ran a small trucking company that hauled trash. When the township tried to bid out trash hauling and squeeze out the small haulers, "My dad had this happening and didn't know what to do," Szakos recalls.

Today, he'd suggest, "Dad, did you ever think of having a media conference?"

His path was further cemented when a professor in college told Szakos if he read a book a week, the prof would spend an hour a week with him.

"A book a week, that's a lot to read," thought Szakos. But through those books, he learned that inequity wasn't always the individual's fault, nor could it necessarily be overcome by working harder.

"These books told me there are some systemic problems with race and class," he explains. The next question was, "How do you make changes?"

He believes his Hungarian last name helped with grad school funding at the University of Chicago, where he learned how to recruit, hold a meeting, and put together a campaign. Two blizzards later, however, he moved to eastern Kentucky and into the middle of a huge fight.

He discovered how a grassroots movement could work– "one person at a time"–  to prevent the moving of the town of David, population 120. "People really do have a voice," maintains Szakos.

A principle of the Virginia Organizing Project is that citizens should participate in the decisions that affect their lives.

"Always a concern as an organizer is that you're [perceived as] a Communist or a rabble-rouser," Szakos says. All he wants to do is make sure people have a decent place to live, an education, a job with a living wage, and are treated fairly.

"It's not like it's that radical," he protests. "To stand up and say people are not treated fairly, why is that considered rabble-rousing?"

Joe Szakos is raising his voice.

Why here? To start a statewide citizens group, now the Virginia Organizing Project (VOP)

What's worst about living here? Public transportation leaves a lot to be desired.

Favorite hangout? Soccer field, watching my daughter play

Most overrated virtue? Making money

People would be surprised to know: I wasn't a rebellious teenager.

What would you change about yourself? I would speak Spanish.

Proudest accomplishment? Two statewide citizens groups, Kentuckians For the Commonwealth and VOP (with a lot of help, of course)

People find most annoying about you: I don't turn my work self off even when I'm not working.

Whom do you admire? Hundreds of community leaders I've been fortunate to work with

Favorite book? We Make Change: Community Organizers Talk About What They Do—and Why (by Kristin Layng Szakos and Joe Szakos, Vanderbilt University Press, 2007)

Subject that causes you to rant? The total refusal of UVA to deal with social and economic problems in the area.

Biggest 21st-century thrill? E-mail

Biggest 21st-century creep out? E-mail

What do you drive? Elderly vehicles that refuse to die

In your car CD player right now: I listen to Radio IQ.

Next journey? To Mexico City for an international meeting of community organizers

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? A ticket for going through a deserted red light at midnight– 20 years ago. Remember, I said I wasn't a rebellious teenager.

Regret: I did not learn to speak Hungarian and Italian from my parents (and grandparents).

Favorite comfort food: Rice and beans. Vanilla creme soda. But not together.

Always in your refrigerator: Fresh local veggies

Must-see TV: Pittsburgh Steelers

Favorite cartoon: Family Circus

Describe a perfect day. Wake up, eat breakfast, then take a nap. Go for a hike with my family in the afternoon and then go to a potluck picnic. Read a book at night.

Walter Mitty fantasy: Parachuting out of a plane

Who'd play you in the movie? My wife says Dennis Quaid.

Most embarrassing moment? When I tried to organize a mass meeting to protest public housing policies in Prestonsburg, Kentucky, nobody showed up but the lawyer and me.

Best advice you ever got? Live your life on purpose.  

Favorite bumper sticker? Organize!

1 comment

Joe is the best. I admire him a great deal.