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Building Revolutions

Father Greg Boyle at Homeboy Industries

Homeboy Industries helps people trying to get out of gangs and people recently released from prison get into the mainstream of society. It provides education. It creates jobs. It provides outreach to jobs in the Los Angeles business community. 

By providing education and work opportunities to individuals, it helps to stabilize families. By providing the tools to keep a job, and to maintain more secure families, it improves both individual and community health. And it reduces domestic violence and other causes for police involvement in the community. 

By each of these processes, Homeboy Industries reduces the expenses of administering a city. Reducing economic distress reduces crime. Reducing economic and personal instablility reduces the cost of ambulance, emergency room, hospital and community health services. 

Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed his family permanently (or until some upstream factory pollutes his fishing ground and kills off all the fish). That’s religious dogma. So it should be no surprise that Homeboy Industries is not the creation of some national congressional program, or state or local do-gooder brainstorm. Rather, it is the 1988 creation of a priest, the minister in Los Angeles’ poorest Catholic diocese. 

In 2020, almost 30 years after Father Gregory Boyle started Homeboy as a small, parish-wide effort to help men trying to leave gangs, it is a big organization, doing many things, some of them on a national scale. Because it is real, not just “revolutionary” words and posturing, Homeboy has taken years to grow, and has had missteps along the way. 

Now it is mainstream. For long time, Homeboy has had a small café in L.A. City Hall. But now it has hit the big time. Kroger markets (“Ralphs” in L.A.) now carry Homeboy salsa. For your holiday parties in well guarded Westside McMansions, hosts can serve salsa made by ex-gangbangers and prison inmates. And in the process help fund the programs that give those makers new and better lives. 

Covid-45 has given us a spate of news reports and exposure to data that social service agencies have been trying to tell us for decades. Black and brown communities suffer more from disease waves. They suffer more because they have generally less healthy populations. Not merely less access to quality healthcare, but also underlying diets that contribute to diabetes, obesity and other poor health realities. 

So it is tragic to read the label on Homeboy salsa and read that Homeboy industries put into its salsa “cane sugar.” There are, of course, many, many kinds of salsa. In the past few years, mango, peach and other fruit salsas have popped up as ice cream topping—but not generally marketed to the traditional Latinx marketplace. Tomato salsa is tomatoes, peppers, onion, garlic, cilantro—without sweeteners, 

Our human reality is that neither politics nor business is simple. As individuals, humans are full of contradictory desires, impulses and thoughts. 

But is this a reason to condemn Homeboy Industries or the education, training, job finding and other work that it does? We’ve lived this question before. Decades before Father Boyle started his noble work, we condemned both President Johnson and President Nixon, because they were war hawk presidents who got a lot of U.S. personnel and a lot of foreign civilians killed while trying to make the world more profitable for U.S. / multinational corporations. 

On the way to earning our scorn and contempt for his colonial brutality, Johnson delivered both the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. How many millions of non-white lives were improved, were saved, by each of those laws—rammed through a resistant Congress by “baby killer” Lyndon? After Mao’s revolution had brought basic education, healthcare and minimal human rights to millions of Chinese peasants, how much more was done to improve the lives of Chinese people by the opportunities opened up by Nixon’s breaking the Cold War China blockade? 

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Our human reality is that neither politics nor business is simple. As individuals, humans are full of contradictory desires, impulses and thoughts. 

  • Lenin wanted to bring Marx’s stateless communism to the mass of Russian serfs, and decided the only practical way to do that was to build a state more repressive than the Czars’ had ruled.
  • Cotton Mather believed passionately that sickness and other evils were tools of the devil, but he implemented science to stop smallpox in colonial Boston, against the strident opposition of his clergy brethren.
  • For centuries, Catholic popes strove to bring salvation to Europe, while rejecting and burning the Islamic science books that revealed how diseases were being controlled and treated in Moslem countries, even as those same diseases ravaged the people the popes sought to save. 

As Joe Mathews notes in his December 24 LA Progressive article on Elon Musk, California can be a hard place to create and run a business. By having a state that allows most people to participate in governance, rather than just the big money interests, our legislative process and our laws and regulations reflect a vast array of single interests, often competing with each other for position. Remember the bigotry days of gay governor Pete Wilson! 

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Democracy is messy. Groups eager to achieve their own narrow goals are constantly willing to compromise with other groups, while turning blind eyes to broad societal concerns. The eager impulse to reduce property taxes through Prop. 13 destroyed California’s world class public education system. Short-term gain trumped long-term good for future generations. And in 2020, decades after that choice, voters scared about their own financial positions rejected a sensible proposal to apply corrections that would repair some of the damage Prop. 13 wrought. 

So, to buy Homeboy sugar-laden salsa or not? It depends. Are you a pragmatist like Jerry Falwell, who built his national immoral minority by encouraging local actions, taking over local offices and building toward citywide, then statewide, and finally nationwide political power? Or are you a purer pseudo-progressive or pseudo-revolutionary? Do you disdain the interests of local people, trying to deal with local issues, and focus on the need to address grand national policies, with little or no hope of convincing politicians who have to answer to local constituents? 

All politics is local, taught Tip O”Neil. Since I’m writing on Christmas Eve, as we struggle to decide whether to celebrate the birth of a messiah or the triumph of loud electric capitalism, it might suit to recall that Jesus did not set out to found a new religion, but rather to preach to local workers and their families that there were better ways to live, better ways to treat each other. He preached that all religion is local, all focused on how we deal with our neighbors.

From St. Francis to Father Boyle, results have been achieved dealing with people as they are, not as we wish they would be. Jerry Falwell saw this truth as a way to reach into their pocketbooks and pull out his wealth. Father Boyle sees this truth and reaches out to pull people’s lives into better places. If putting a little sugar in the salsa disappoints, it is probably a small price to pay for the benefit it brings his larger work. 

If putting up with appointees who are too “middle of the road” disappoints, it is worth the effort to be in a position to be heard. Lyndon Johnson said that it was better to be inside the tent pissing out than to be outside the tent pissing in. “The Squad” is inside. They are being heard, not listened to enough—at least by leadership. But they gained new members this year because the people listened and heard, and acted, before their “leaders” had heard. It is ever thus. Successful, lasting changes come from the demands of the local voters, rather than the central “leaders.”

Tom Hall

We celebrate Yankee Doodle and Stacy Abrams, and those like Jesus and Father Boyle who build their revolutions from the ground up, rather than from the top down. 

Tom Hall