Lifetime Activist and Changemaker Gary Delgado Joins Haas Institute

Sara Grossman

Communications and Media Specialist
Faculty Profile

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Delgado will bring years of organizing experience and a deep commitment to racial and social justice to his new role as a Visiting Scholar at the Institute.
 
When Gary Delgado started organizing, many decades ago, the challenges were vast. Could welfare recipients and poor folks be organized? Could women be organizers? And, perhaps the largest question of the time: was it possible to build a multiracial organization for social justice?

Delgado was then one of the initial organizers for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now or ACORN, a collection of community-based organizations that advocated for the rights of low-income communities. Sent to the South to set up an ACORN anchor point for the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, Delgado found himself in the heart of the struggle: Little Rock, Arkansas

“It was the unvarnished South,” Delgado recalls. “It was heavily segregated, and the greatest challenge was fear—people were afraid.” 

After a year in Little Rock—and during his many decades as an organizer—Delgado definitively proved that these “great unknowns” were possible. Blacks and whites could in fact partner together for a larger fight against injustice and discrimination. 

“ACORN built a multiracial organization anchored in the South and the Center for Third World Organizing both built local multiracial organizations and was staffed by a purposefully multiracial staff,” Delgado adds. “Of the three, CTWO was not only ‘owned and operated; by a multiracial staff, it had an explicit ideology of multiracial solidarity.”

Today, Delgado has amassed an impressive portfolio of civil rights contributions and achievements, including as a campaign advisor, visiting professor, researcher, community organizer, founding director of the Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO) and later served as the founding director of the Applied Research Center, (now Race Forward) until 2007. In addition to his organizing work, Delgado has also been heavily involved in various academic pursuits, which he says has helped “develop intellectual ammunition for community groups involved in racial justice work.” He received a Ph.D. in Sociology from UC Berkeley in 1983 and went on to write two books and more than 40 articles on race and social change.

Currently, Delgado is currently a visiting scholar at the Haas Institute, and most recently helped film a series of training videos on equity for the Institute’s Government Alliance on Race & Equity

Delgado’s work has always been centered on giving voice to those who lack one. He says the idea behind the Applied Research Center was always to provide “intellectual ammunition” to folks organizing around race. The center studied previously ignored topics like the disproportionate suspensions of students of color in schools, the racial implications of welfare reform, and federal policies that excessively affected immigrants of color. 

The center’s work on welform reform, for example, “consolidated people,” Delgado says. Today, “people are willing to say that welfare reform is racist and sexist, and that the regulations were set up so that the people were cut off early—upwards of 60 percent of women on welfare were subject to abuse.”

The center’s work on welform reform, for example, “consolidated people,” Delgado says. Today, “people are willing to say that welfare reform is racist and sexist, and that the regulations were set up so that the people were cut off early—upwards of 60 percent of women on welfare were subject to abuse.”

Delgado first dipped his toes into social justice long before his involvement with ARC. With a “Garveyite” grandmother and a mother who fought for poor people’s access to healthcare, Delgado says he “came out of an activist family.” 

As an undergraduate at SUNY Westbury, he found himself in a hotbed of activism, with classmates who were involved in the Black Panthers and Young Lords. Delgado quickly became active in anti-war activism and racial justice work, ultimately attending the March on Washington in 1963. 

By his sophomore year, he was recruited to the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), from which ACORN was born. Following his stint with ACORN in Arkansas, Delgado headed to New York to organize once again on behalf of the NWRO. In New York he encountered entirely different obstacles than the ones he faced in Arkansas. “It was a bigger playing field,” he recalls. “The opposition was much more sophisticated and better organized.” 

At that time, the dominant theory of organizing was to create policy-level change by helping low income people put pressure on the state and demanding that they receive everything the state could give them under the law. The theory was based on the idea of the “expansive state” and redistribution, Delgado says.  

Looking back, Delgado believes that issues of race and gender weren’t addressed in a critical enough way through that lens. “But it was my personal experience that race played a huge role in determining outcomes for people,” he says.

But times have changed. “In the past a lot of community organizations were allergic to addressing issues of race and gender,” Delgado says. “That has significantly changed. It’s now impossible to ignore race.”

But times have changed. “In the past a lot of community organizations were allergic to addressing issues of race and gender,” Delgado says. “That has significantly changed. It’s now impossible to ignore race.”

Following his years serving as the director of Race Forward, Delgado decided to pivot roles and head to film school, hoping to put on a new hat as a documentary filmmaker, which he now does full time. His films continue to shed light on the same injustices that he has fought against throughout his career. He decided to make the switch after realizing that films were a particularly effective medium to encourage discussion around race and racism.

“Once you put a human face on an issue, it’s more difficult to reject it,” Delgado says.

After decades in the fight, however, he says he remains optimistic for the future.

“I’m optimistic about the fact that there is a greater awareness and deeper sense of urgency around these issues,” he says. “You can’t be an organizer and not be optimistic.”