"- Timing is critical. Seize a crisis, or, if necessary, create one.

- Events do not happen until they are duly reported in the newspaper. Power feeds on news and news feeds on power."


From .......... SALT OF THE EARTH [RC publication]

Nov. - Dec. 1996

page 29

The Baroni Principles for social action

Father William Byron, S.J.

Promoters of social justice and those engaged in urban ministry cannot afford to forget the late Monsignor Geno Baroni [1930-1984]. The U.S. Catholic Church and national social-policy advocates could use an infusion of the vision and spirit of this creative Italian American priest civil-rights activist, and community mobilizer.

Baroni had deep confidence in the wisdom of ordinary people. Public policy, he believed, should be good news to the poor. In the Baroni perspective, "policy is people." The community organizer's task, Baroni thought, is to help people "politicize" their own good instincts and move their communities toward economic and political development.

Baroni was a complicated genius who did things viscerally, not intellectually. He was not a linear thinker but moved in patterns. He worked the phones, not the typewriter. Not all of the issues that engaged him — in his ministry as a parish-based civil-rights activist in the '60s and as an ethnic-neighborhood organizer, adviser to bishops, and assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in the '70s and early '80s—are on today's social-justice agenda, but many are.

I believe it is time to catch and codify the "Baroni Principles" for mobilizing and developing community so that a Baroni method can be developed much as Maria Montessori's principles have produced a Montessori method of early-childhood education. It is my hope that, with these principles articulated and the method taught, Baroni Centers might emerge in some universities, connecting with parishes and neighborhoods, the very communities Geno Baroni saw as indispensable foundations for social stability.

I have collected the following principles from my memory of conversations and discussions with Baroni over the years, as well as from Baroni's only speech — one he delivered often though he never wrote it down — and from the recollections of others who knew him better than I.

- Democracy does not happen automatically.

- The social-action approach begins in the individual heart.

- Work from idea to committee to coalition.

- People do not live in cities, they live in neighborhoods.

- The neighborhood is the building block of city planning.

- The neighborhood unit is the primary form of human settlement.

- Residential neighborhoods must be preserved over time.

- People in neighborhoods know more about what ails their communities than do outside social workers and urban strategists.

- Renewal programs - Timing is critical. Seize a crisis, or, if necessary, create one.

- Events do not happen until they are duly reported in the newspaper. Power feeds on news and news feeds on power.

- Programs brought into neighborhoods by outsiders are bound to fail.

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

- Neighborhood organization needs clergy participation; the clergy know what is happening in the community and often have friends in City Hall.

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

- There is a connection between the deterioration of the neighborhood and the antecedent decline of the family, alienation of the individual from society, and the loss of moral standards.

- The primary places of identity are family, neighborhood, and community. Initiate empowerment here and then form effective coalitions.

- Interpersonal support systems begin in the family.

- Institutional support systems—churches, unions, fraternal organizations, for example—give strength to neighborhoods.

- When interpersonal and/or institutional support systems decline, the neighborhood is damaged or destroyed.

- Therapy groups are replacing neighborhoods as a source of support for the sick.

- If the cities are to be saved, ethnic and racial groups have to work with one another, not fight one another.

- Be aware of racial sensitivities, but don't pander to racial prejudice. Understand its source and take the issue above it.

- Apathy and violence are cousins coming from the same font — despair. When there is a lack of opportunity, psychological poverty will grow that leads to continued apathy and despair.

- You have to keep moving; not to move is to become stagnant.

- Timing is critical. Seize a crisis, or, if necessary, create one.

- Information is power.

- Events do not happen until they are duly reported in the newspaper. Power feeds on news and news feeds on power.

- Cultivate reporters; return their calls and give them leads.

- Politicians do not deal with problems until the problems are forced upon them.

- Action follows teaching by way of experience.

- Parents should be the first voices of justice for their children by way of example and experience.

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

- Understanding the ethnic factor, the longtime key to understanding a northern urban area, is useful almost anywhere.

- The role of the church in social action is to help convene people.

- Self-help is self-determination and self-reliance.

- "Try it" is a consistent principle; not all ideas that look good in theory work out in practice.

- Community developers should not try to manage the projects their organizing efforts produce. These should be spun off into separate organizations.

- The organizer has to get ordinary people in touch with their roots, their heritage, their best.

- The organizer has to give ordinary people hope.

- The organizer has to believe that ordinary people can build bridges across racial and ethnic lines.

- Surround yourself with strong people willing to challenge the conventional wisdom. Work with them as a team, not as an academic debating society.

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

- Know where you come from; it is part of what you are.

- Now and then slip away for a few days; get away from the intensity. Today is not the world's final day.

- Look for the "right language" that can bring people together.

- Tell stories and listen to the stories of others.

- Talk to anyone, friend or foe. You can never tell when someone is ready to be won over.

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

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

- It is easier to obtain forgiveness than to get permission.

Excerpted from the Winter '94 issue of Church magazine, published by: National Pastoral Life Center, 18 Bleecker Street New York, NY 10012-2806. Subscriptions are $29 a year. Used with permission.

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