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Thursday, April 24, 2014

In Memoriam: Barry Greever

Pioneer in research techniques for community organizing
Barry Greever (photo circa 1980 by Will Collette)
By Will Collette

A few days ago, I learned that an old friend of mine, Barry Greever, had died. Barry’s name is hardly a household word, but within community and labor activists of a certain age, Barry is known as a pioneer of an important craft, that of strategic and tactical research. 

His 1970s pamphlet, “Tactical Investigations for People’s Struggles,” influenced a generation of organizers by providing a vocabulary and a framework for how to do research that increases the ability of an organization to fight and win.

Before Barry, unions and community groups would collect information during the course of a campaign, but often without any precision or planning, leading groups to rely almost exclusively on turning out as many people as possible and having them yell as loud as possible.

Now, turn-out and loudness are still essential elements, but what Barry introduced was a way to be more focused and disciplined by adding intelligence gathering to the picture. That factor added greatly to the ability of people to gain some measure of power and control over their lives.

I met Barry shortly after Cathy and I left Providence for a 25-year old stint in Washington DC. I had been hired by the Legal Services Corporation for a special project that was the brainstorm of renowned RI Legal Services welfare rights lawyer Ron Simon

I had worked closely with Ron in the 1970s while I worked at the Office of Community Affairs for the Diocese of Providence. Even though Ron was a fearsome trial lawyer and was especially successful before the much-missed late federal District Court Judge Raymond Pettine, Ron believed that true justice comes through community organizing, and not lawsuits.

Ron believed that lawyers could help community groups do better at organizing, but that there was a danger that lawyers could mess groups up by steering them off the streets and into the courts. 

Ron left Rhode Island to become head of the Legal Services Office Of Program Support in Washington and then recruited me to run a program to teach over 10,000 Legal Services lawyers and paralegals across the country how to work with and aid community organizations and also how not to screw them up.

Image of About Tim SampsonI assembled a core team to carry out this mission. First on the team was Dave Beckwith, a crack organizer and trainer of organizers. Next was the late Tim Sampson, long-time deputy to Providence-born National Welfare Rights Organizer leader George Wiley. And rounding out our team was Barry Greever to cover research and also to add components on history and culture.

Barry did his part of training strategic research through story and song, which was in keeping with the way organizers, especially in the South, were trained in the craft of organizing. Ask an organizer how to do something, and you’ll almost invariably get a story wherein lies the answer.

Or you’ll get a joke or a song – he told lots of jokes, many of them so corny that there were more groans than laughs and sang great old Mountain songs while playing his old guitar and often accompanied by Susie Balliet Ross on her autoharp.

Harlan county usa.jpgBarry was steeped in Appalachian culture and plied his trade throughout that region and the South in general. He helped the United Mine Workers get through the bitter 1973 Harlan County coal strike, and helped the textile workers in the battles with Southern textile mills that had moved there from New England so they could exploit a largely unorganized work force.

Barry believed that you not only had to do research to create a better organizing plan, but that you had to do it right, because we are allowed little or no slack if we get things wrong, while the oligarchs are allowed to lie their asses off.

But Barry also believed in the Organizer’s Prime Directive – don’t do for people what they can do for themselves – which naturally led to the concept of participatory research.

The great southern organizing school, the Highlander Center, was a great believer in participatory research. Highlander was the “alma mater” for most of the South’s great organizers, including the young Dr. Martin Luther King who went through Highlander before anyone other than his family and congregation knew his name. Rosa Parks went through Highlander before refusing to sit in the back of the bus. To me, Highlander is hallowed ground.

Barry worked with Highlander on the seminal “Who owns Appalachia?” project where teams of local people were trained in how to search land records to find the true answer to that question. While people understood and believed that outside corporations owned their communities, this project gave them the proof they needed.

Using similar skills, the families of imprisoned Harlan County coal mine strikers were able to prove what they always suspected. They all believed that local Judge F. Byrd Hogg, the guy who was sending strikers to jail by the dozens, was in conflict of interest because he himself was a coal operator. Once proven, Judge Hogg was removed.

Barry told that story and many more, plus gave his tips and tricks of the trade to several thousand of the Legal Services staff we trained from 1978 until newly elected President Ronald Reagan shut down our unit in 1981.

Then, for a time, Barry and I collaborated through Barry’s non-profit consulting group, the Train Institute, doing similar work with groups across the US. We struggled with the difficulty in finding funding and paying gigs in the very different atmosphere of the Reagan Administration and then finally gave it up. 

I wasn’t content with the life of a consultant where more time went into marketing and fund-raising than the work and went to work as organizing director for Lois Gibbs of Love Canal fame. And Barry got sick and decided to go off on a personal spiritual quest as a way to heal himself.

Barry and I lost touch, which I regret, but over the years, I thought of him often as I made my own journey in this work and grew from what he had taught me. I never forgot that he was one of those handful of people I've met who truly changed the course of my life.

Throughout the years, I have adhered to Barry’s core principles about understanding that organizing is more important than fact-finding but that fact-finding is important. And that the law does not equal justice. And that knowledge is not power - it's what you do with that power.

But most important is Barry’s insistence on teaching and helping people to do their own research because, as he would always say, “why should we researchers have all the fun?”