Every spring, Marshall Ganz teaches a class at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government on how to organize a political movement. This year feels especially strange, he tells the assembled room of earnest young students who have packed the classroom to overflowing so that they cover the floor and the window ledges. It’s 2014 -- the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, which was the beginning both of Ganz’ education and of a theory of political organizing that would, ultimately, be used to help elect the first African American president of the United States.
In 1964, Ganz was 21, and on the verge of becoming a college dropout. He has a way of making not staying in school sound pretty exciting. “It was a movement of young people,” he tells the room. “Do you know how old Martin Luther King was when he led the bus boycott?” He doesn’t wait for an answer. “Twenty-five.”
“I got hooked,” he continues. “Going back to Harvard seemed like the most boring thing in the world. I wrote a pretentious letter: 'How can I go back and study history when I’ve been making it?'"
Ganz’s father was a rabbi, and Ganz remembers spending his fifth birthday in a displaced persons camp in Germany, giving presents to other children. “My mom,” he tells the students, “had an idea that I should give presents instead of getting them.” To him, the Holocaust was not about anti-Semitism, but racism. “It’s not a complex ideology,” Ganz says. “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."
Ganz is disheveled, folksy, and charming. Everything about the talk feels loose, improvisational, off-the-cuff. It’s not. It’s a well-crafted work of persuasion -- an attempt to make the craft of shifting the standards of a society into something accessible to anyone.
The talk we’re hearing now is nearly identical to one he gave three years ago, to Occupy Boston. Most of this course is online, as is nearly everything Ganz has written or talked about.
What Freedom Summer taught him, Ganz continues, is how to fight back against a group of people who have rigged the system. “Whites didn’t have power because blacks had granted it. They couldn’t vote! There was no mechanism of political accountability. If you want to understand inequality, look at the power. And then -- what do you do? Do you go to Washington, D.C., and say 'Can I have some of your power?’ They’ll just say, 'Testify before our committee! Give us some more evidence!'"
The civil rights movement had no such illusions, says Ganz. It was packed with seasoned activists, and was always grooming more. Rosa Parks was a secretary of NAACP, but she also trained at the Highlander Center. Martin Luther King learned from his father, who was a Baptist minister. “You have to be a good organizer to be a good minister,” laughs Ganz. “Otherwise you don’t have a congregation."
To Ganz, who has spent decades seeing causes rise and fall, the strongest social movements are made of a network, rather than a hierarchy. He illustrates this point with a cartoonishly large Hoberman sphere that he likes to snap open at the end of lectures.
Recently, he sat down with me to talk about how organizing works, where the environmental movement fits in, and how the Sierra Club's plans evolved into the 2008 Obama campaign.