[Old photo from Sisters of the Road Cafe, 'Guitar Man' with Genny Nelson]
Many historians, countless analysts and most activists refer to the peace and justice movements as Leftists. But are we? What does that mean?
If Marx and Engels were the founders of the Left, and if Lenin and others carried the banner forward, then who did they exclude?
Pacifists were irrelevant, since the revolution was always envisioned as violent. Armed cadres, the vanguard of the revolution, were the privileged ones.
The poorest of the poor, the lumpen proletariat, were dismissed as unable to achieve the class consciousness required to matter. The beggars on the street, those who had been failed most miserably by the system, were deemed worthless in the quest for revolution.
Feminists who were not merely trying for humanization of women, but who were bringing forth a new model of flattened hierarchy instead of the male Marxist "supreme leader," were never going to advance much in the Old Left.
Which brings us to our case study in creating a Gandhian institution, a different sort of structural nonviolence social apparatus that features all the cast-off elements of the Left and the Right. In Portland, this case study is Sisters of the Road Cafe, and our friend Genny Nelson.
In the aftermath of the fissures, fractures, factionalizing and failures of the Left in America during the heady days of the 1960s and early 1970s, Genny Nelson turned to a different paradigm and created a synthesis of the best of the leadership of Dorothy Day, Gandhi, and her own brand of elicitive conflict transformation that presaged theorist-practitioners such as John Paul Lederach.
Dorothy and Mohandas both saw in the most disrespected, dismissed and disadvantaged the core of new consciousness, and Genny drew from both. Dorothy and Mohandas were contemporaries, more or less, although Dorothy was younger by almost 30 years. Still, they did some of their most germinal work in the same period of the 1930s, when Gandhi was maturing into a seasoned liberation leader and Day was founding the Catholic Worker movement in the US, a movement that has stayed minor but has gone global.
Gandhi worked extensively with the Dalit, the so-called Untouchables, and he lived with them several times as he organized in various Indian cities on different campaigns. He called them Harijan, Children of God, and was slow to develop his own consciousness about them--he still supported the caste system in the early 1920s--but by the last two decades of his life he worked as much on fighting the notion that an ethnic group should be born into a low status as he did for the independence of India. In guru-culture India, Gandhi was seen by many as a demigod, and by many more as a holy man. Many asked him to perform marriages. By the end of his life he would only officiate or bless marriages that were of a Dalit and a non-Dalit. In interviews with western journalists he declared that if he could set policy for a post-colonial free India he would end the caste system.
At the same time, in the US, Dorothy Day started her Catholic Worker, serving the poorest of the poor, feeding them and sheltering them. Like Gandhi, she responded to great need out of a genuine connection to humankind--her time, her love, her care and her devotion were to the remnants, the dregs, the left-out lumpens. She lived with them in her house and spent hours listening to them. Day's roots were leftist but she rejected those roots in part because she said the communists were all theory and no action, except the action of hate and violence. Her attraction to leftist thinking had to do with ending income and wealth disparity, not to the violent revolutionary bombast. There were no communist houses of hospitality for those ruined by the capitalist war system. Dorothy also felt strongly that the Catholic church had no class analysis and no tendency to do systemic change, only a charity model. She took what she identified as the strongest components of the leftist thinking and the church's actions and left the rest on the cutting room floor.
Genny Nelson jumped into that harness in her young adult life and has been doing it ever since. She is not a national leader for two reasons. One, she doesn't have that desire nor style. Two, she can't travel much and is often in trouble when she does because of her lifelong struggle against the most debilitating form of diabetes. Indeed, she is in the cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit in an Indiana hospital as I write this, in recovery from her second heart attack, suffered as she visited her mother. She had hoped to then spend time with her children in Chicago. I've only known Genny since 2002, but it seems that when she travels she is so vulnerable that she is likely to end up in the hospital at some point, though this is the most serious bout to date.
So Genny was working in the streets in Portland as a young Catholic Worker and asked the skid row lumpen what might be a good thing. They said they wanted some community gathering place, someplace to eat a meal together that wasn't charity but wasn't capitalist--that didn't charge much and that wasn't concerned with quick turnover of the tables to make more money. They didn't want to get any religious proselytizing. She listened and acted and thus birthed Sisters of the Road Cafe. It never had a supreme leader, ran on a pacifist philosophy, and produced two generations of lumpen proletariat in Portland who have a distinct class consciousness and the organizational ability to struggle with nonviolent means for more justice, more equality, more opportunity and more community collective security through creating a culture of peace.
Genny has never sold herself as a Dorothy Day or a Gandhi--indeed, I think she cusses just to throw us off the scent. But she flattened the hierarchy of Sisters and that movement in the streets of Portland more than either Gandhi or Day did with their movements--for all their love and vision and brilliance, Mohandas Gandhi and Dorothy Day were both supreme leaders in their own ways. Genny has always spread the authority around and has formed a community of leadership at Sisters. Any movement founded upon listening to those rejected by left and right, by paying attention to and serving and working with those disenfranchised by our war system, will have some very interesting leadership. Nonviolent power works in mysterious ways, but I believe those interested in it will study Genny Nelson's model for its many lessons. And I hope when she emerges from her current health crisis she will set down those lessons for us to learn from.
Bless your heart, Genny. We send love.