As a hungry young drifter who had only recently (and barely) finished high school in the late 1980s, George Goehl (pronounced “gale”) got by with a little help from a free soup kitchen in Bloomington, Ind. A few years later, that kitchen served as the launching pad for his dynamic career as a community organizer. For the past six years, as executive director of the community-organizing network National People’s Action (NPA), Goehl has spurred a rapid growth. More important, he is spearheading a dramatic transformation of NPA’s strategy and goals—while helping to unleash more of the progressive potential of the large and uniquely American community organizing movement.
Goehl’s first political awakening came after he had returned to the soup kitchen as a volunteer in 1990. One day, it hit him that many of the patrons from years earlier were still regulars: The kitchen, part of our country’s tattered safety net, had kept them alive, but it had not reduced poverty, generally or individually. He began discussing the root causes of poverty with the kitchen’s patrons. Then, with tips from a mentor he met at a tenants’ organizing conference, he transformed the talkfest into the Coalition of Low-Income and Homeless Citizens. His work caught the attention of Shel Trapp, an organizer and a disciple of Saul Alinsky, the founder of modern community organizing.
Trapp recruited Goehl to study the craft in Chicago’s hard-pressed West Side neighborhoods in 1996. Goehl dutifully learned the commandments of traditional Chicago-style community organizing: Don’t talk ideology, just issues. No electoral politics. Build organizations, not movements. No coalitions: Protect organizational turf. Focus on neighborhoods and on concrete, winnable goals. Goehl quickly recruited hundreds of new members to Blocks Together, then an allied organization of National People’s Action, his first association with the multi-state network of community groups founded in 1972 by Trapp and the brilliant neighborhood leader Gale Cincotta.