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Posted March 18, 2010

Geno Baroni: The Wisdom of Ordinary People

By Bill Byron, S.J.

It is hard to believe so many years have passed since the death, form cancer, at age fifty-three, of Monsignor Geno Baroni on August 27, 1984. It is even harder to have to acknowledge that, for the most part, American Catholics have forgotten who he was.

We cannot afford to forget Geno Baroni. He was a Washington, D.C. priest and civil-rights activist in the 1960s; an ethnic neighborhood organizer in the ‘70s; and, after advising candidate Jimmy Carter in the presidential campaign in 1976, an Assistant Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Carter Administration.

Geno Baroni had deep confidence in the wisdom of ordinary people. He valued institutions but worked to hold them accountable, accessible, and responsive to ordinary people. He always looked for ways to establish linkages, to form connections. He thought public policy should be “good news” for the poor. In the Baroni perspective, “policy is people.” His aim was to make the personal political ; he would move from home, to neighborhood, to City Hall, and on up the line. The neighborhood-or community-organizer’s task is to help poeple “politicize” their own good instincts. In addition, Baroni awakened in the hearts of countless, talented and generous people a response, translated into career commitments, to the imperative of working for social justice.

Baroni was a complicated genius who did things viscerally, not intellectually. He was not a linear thinker. He moved in patterns rather than in straight lines. He worked the phones, not the typewriter. He had really only one speech; it personalized and interpreted what was known in the 1970s as the “white ethnic movement.” The basic speech was never written down until after his death when Larry O’Rourke produced his 1991 book Geno and in it reconstructed “The Speech” in a chapter titled, “Geno’s Parables.”

I’ve often wished that we had some Baroni Centers around the country that would train social activists in the Baroni method shaped by what I like to think of as the Baroni principles. If that day ever comes, here are some of Geno’s principles that will find their way into the curriculum:

The role of the Church in social action is to help convene people.
The organizer has to get ordinary people in touch with their roots, their heritage, their best.

The organizer has to have deep respect for the ordinary in ordinary people.

The organizer has to give ordinary people hope.

The way to break down walls is to go around them by building bridges, forming coalitions forging bonds.

Work from idea, to committee, to coalition.

If you want to save th city, and the country, and the world, you have to start in the neighborhood where people live.

Neighborhood survival means parish survival; parish survival means neighborhood survival.

Apathy and violence are cousins coming from the same font — despair. When there is no way out — lack of opportunity, growing frustration, and despaire — there is a new kind of psychological poverty that leads to continued apathy and despair.

Values are at the core of any organizing effort. Respond to people’s deepest hopes and aspirations.

Never rent a hall you can’t fill.

It is easier to obtain forgiveness than to get permission.

When you make a mistake, admit it; then pick up the pieces and move on.

Today’s troubled American Church would do well to incorporate a few Baroni principles into its renewal and repair strategies. As Geno used to say, “Action follows teaching by way of experience.”