The Next Move is Always Ours!
First, full disclosure: I worked for Gale Cincotta for over ten years, starting as a graduate student volunteer in 1973 through staffing her negotiation team in 1984 for the landmark neighborhood lending agreement with then the First National Bank of Chicago (now Chase). I had a great education but to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, I learned more from Gale Cincotta than I ever learned in school.
GALE FORCE by Michael Westgate with Ann Vick-Westgate is not only a superb biography of a true American hero, it is also an exceptional oral history of the 1970's and the growth of the neighborhood movement as a direct descendant of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. With these troubled economic and political times, this book is not just history but an extremely relevant study for today.
The Westgates instinctively chose to tell this story directly from those who lived these times and through articles from the national newsletter, DISCLOSURE, which I had the privilege of founding for Gale to chronicle how communities across the country were allowed to be victimized by their own government: In a time of racial tensions, Gale was noted for saying, "We have found the enemy, and it's not us,"
As the book details in its 370+ pages and its extensive bibliography on this era, there were many legacies of Gale Cincotta including two national laws that continue to serve America's communities today: The Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) of 1975 and the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) of 1977. Chicagoans still benefit from Gale's leadership in establishing the Chicago Neighborhood Housing Services, which Michael Westgate worked with her to do in 1973.
But inherent within all the stories is perhaps Gale's greatest legacy and what first attracted me to her and continues to inspire and shape my professional and personal life — Gale's ability to work with all who were seeking real solutions to community issues. It was not common in the early '70s for a church hall to be filled with white ethnics and people of color joined together in demanding redress from their government officials for allowing their homes and blocks to become "Cities Destroyedfir Cash," the title of Brian Bayer's 1973 expose of the FHA scandals. I still twinge today when DC policy wanks tell us FHA is the solution for American homeownership. As Gale often emphasized, "we want the private economy to come in our neighborhood." As the Westgates capture, Gale was not a political person in the conventional party sense. She didn't care if you were Democrat President Jimmy Carter or Republican Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp, she expected a responsive government. This is certainly a point lost on Capitol Hill today.
While some chapters were flashbacks for me personally, other chapters provide the reader with the Chicago history of realtors' block-busting; for many who may not have known, the chapter on the Catholic Church details the key role of Father Roger Coughlin and Catholic Charities' support for organizers at the parish level. For those who knew both Gale and She! Trapp, the book describes the ying and yang of surely the most unique but productive "professional marriage." Unfortunately, while their voices are captured here for all to read, both Roger and Shell left us last year before GALE FORCE was published. Their legacies are also part of this story.
I found Chapter 10 "You gotta have an outcome" to be revealing with its citation of Ford Foundation program officers' reports. I couldn't help but acknowledge that their observations were not only true but also explain much about my own managerial style. One of my contributing stories was Gale's response to another funder's question of how could she accomplish so much with so small an operation. Without any hesitation, Gale replied, "We work miracles here, it's part of the program," One of my colleagues put those words on the front of Gale's desk and it became lore for staff motivation.
One correction I have already provided the Westgates for a future edition is a misrepresentation (obviously spread by the American Bankers Association) regarding the 1980 Reclaim America action on the ABA's annual convention in Chicago. A U.S. Senate staff in recounting Gale's assault of McCormick Place by boat on Columbus Day states that the boat was in danger of capsizing and had to be rescued by the Coast Guard. In fact, then Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne was speaking and welcoming the ABA convention and had ordered Chicago Police boats to be deployed to stop Gale's "Santa Maria II" from landing and reclaiming America from the bankers. Such "lake" or street theater has always been in the DNA of National People's Action and remains today. GALE FORCE includes other stories from the 1979 Battle of New Orleans to the 1980 NBC Land Shark appearance at the Federal Reserve Board. But throughout this history, the Westgates remind the reader that Gale's intention was always to win. "This isn't about civil disobedience. This is about getting a meeting and moving business along. You can't move business along if you get arrested."
GALE FORCE begs the "what if" question -- if Gale had still been with us these past few years? When she died on August 15, 2001, Gale's last words were reported to be: "Get the Crooks." Unfortunately, ten years later after our government stood by and watched our economy be destroyed by greed, "too big to jail" seems to be the current refrain.
This book captures Gale well -- a most ordinary blue collar working class woman without a formal education who managed to do extraordinary things with other everyday people from different races, cultures, and communities. GALE FORCE tells the story, which we must to continue to spread, of how one person can make a difference. As Gale would remind us, the next move is always ours.
Since 2002, Ted Wysocki has been the President & CEO of the Local Economic & Employment Development [LEED] Council in Chicago. He is the Immediate Past Chair of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition [NCRC].
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