Elizabeth: [00:00:00] Welcome to Creativists in Dialogue, a podcast embracing the creative life. I’m Elizabeth Bruce.
Michael: And I’m Michael Oliver.
Elizabeth: Today are our good friends, Roger and Diane Kahn. Roger is an author, an action sociologist, a community organizer, an activist, a professor, and a jazz and mushroom aficionado. Diane is a visual and scenic artist, a designer, an architectural professional, and educator, and an incredibly creative cook. Welcome, Roger and Diane.
Roger: Hi. Thanks.
Diane: Thank you.
Michael: Yes, we like to start at the beginning. And I’ve been told, and I might be wrong, but I’ve been told that you both grew up in Queens, New York, in the forties and fifties.
Michael: So, what are some of—and you each of you can speak on this—what are some of your earliest memories of creativity, either as a witness or as a participant?
Diane: My father was [00:01:00] a visual artist and I can remember him at his drawing board. His day job was running the silkscreen department for the central post office in New York City, but his side hustle was creating testimonials in exquisite calligraphy. I have, I don’t have the originals, obviously, they were given to the honoree, but I have negatives—
Diane: —of his work all done without a computer, by hand with a crow quill pen and ink.
Elizabeth: Wow. Roger, what about you? What are some of your earliest experiences of creativity?
Roger: I’m not sure I had a lot of early experiences in creativity, but I was inducted into a creative life by a doting [00:02:00] mother. From as early as I can remember, she had me playing the recorder and taking piano lessons, and I did that until I was about 10 years old. And simultaneously, she would take me to Carnegie Hall and Town Hall on Saturday mornings for concert recitals, which was part of life in those days. And we would go to a lot of museums and I would go to Broadway plays before I was 10 years old, probably by the time I was maybe six or so. And she just indoctrinated me.
Elizabeth: All right.
Roger: She might—
Elizabeth: Go mom.
Roger: She might call it educating me.
Elizabeth: Speaking of your family, Roger, as I understand it, not to be too personal, but as I understand it, your father died relatively young. I can’t remember, in his forties or fifties.
Roger: He was 50.
Elizabeth: He was 50. And he was a scientist, but he died without life [00:03:00] insurance and so your family was suddenly thrust into a much more difficult position economically, even though you were very well-educated, in, in terms of your family. And as I recall you talking about how much your family struggled. And I’m wondering if you could remember some of the creative problem-solving your mom used, you and your brother used when you were struggling with this newfound austerity, if you will.
Roger: I can. I remember early on selling firecrackers right after my dad died and making lot of money doing that. I had amassed over $1,500 in selling firecrackers that were illegal in New York at that time.
Roger: $1500, which equates today—I looked it up actually—it equates to somewhere in the neighborhood of $18,000.
Elizabeth: Wow! And you were how old?
Roger: I was about either 10 or 11. Wow. And I really, we—an [00:04:00] Irish kid and me as a Jewish kid—we would go up to the Bronx and from Queens, which was like a thousand miles away. And we found, we knew this place that—he knew, the other guy knew—the, the store that sold these firecrackers and we’d buy ’em for, at that time, a nickel a pack. And then we would come back and sell them in our neighborhood for a quarter a pack. But as we got closer to the 4th of July, the prices went to 50 cents a pack.
Roger: And then to a dollar a pack.
Elizabeth: The night of July 4th, they were—
Roger: And it really turned into a lot of money. And I also, and that was illegal entrepreneurship and, but I also, from time I was about, I think about 10 or 11 years old, I was one of these guys that plays were written about who were newsboys of New York.
Elizabeth: Oh, right.
Roger: And you [00:05:00] worked at a store and you would unload the truck newspapers and, and you’d fold them and get ’em into a, what would be a Sunday newspaper typically. And then you would deliver them to the people in the neighborhood that subscribed through that store to buy the newspapers. And that led to some real interesting street smarts. And, and that was just a part of my life. And then I got a job sweeping in a hardware store, sweeping the floors when I was 11 or 12 or something like that. And then I started working in, by the time I was, I guess 13 or 14, I worked in a men’s haberdashery store. And all of those were really incredible educational experiences and the social life around working was what a street kid in New York City would [00:06:00] experience. It was not what I was raised to be by my scientist father and my culturally driving mother. But it was a lot of learning. And—
Elizabeth: Speaking of learning—
Roger: —a few bruises, I might add.
Elizabeth: Am I remembering correctly that you were the yo-yo champion of New York City at 12 or something?
Roger: That’s right. I was. And I, and there I worked also. The guy that was the distributor or whatever they call it, I worked with him and held yo-yo contests all over the borough of Queens when I was probably, I don’t know, 12 maybe.
Michael: Did you ever perform in front of an audience?
Michael: So you were a performer then?
Roger: There you go. I was a yo-yo performer.
Michael: These were obviously on the street where like people gathered around you and you would do your yo-yo?
Roger: Actually, no. When you got to the finals of the yo-yo contests, you would do them in theaters, in movie theaters. [00:07:00]
Michael: Oh, okay.
Roger: Before the matinee on Saturday. And, you would do—I haven’t thought about this in a long time.
Michael: How big was your audience?
Roger: A movie theater!
Michael: Wow, okay.
Elizabeth: Wow. Talk about pressure.
Roger: At the, the Loew’s Theater in Brooklyn was where the finals were.
Michael: Oh, okay.
Roger: But in Queens, the same kind of thing went on and, yeah, I never thought of that. But what I do remember, and it was interesting, is that when I did the yo-yo contests, I got paid $5 for a Saturday morning to hold a yo-yo contest and demonstrate in front of the contest and when kids would screw up with the yo-yo, I’d help ’em—
Elizabeth: Oh, okay.
Roger: —you know, learn to do the trick and untangle—
Elizabeth: You were a yo-yo instructor, a yo-yo guru here.
Michael: So that’s your, like, your first experience as a performer and as an educator.
Roger: I guess so.
Elizabeth: So Diane, your dad, as you said, was a visual artist and I’m wondering, you are [00:08:00] this extraordinary visual artist and I’m wondering if your, in your early life, you and your dad shared this language of, this way of seeing and this kind of language of design and color and texture and all of that.
Diane: Not verbally. Visually, somewhat. Okay. I think it’s, my style is so much like his.
Elizabeth: Is that right?
Diane: And I don’t try to copy his. I think it’s heredity.
Elizabeth: Okay. Sure.
Diane: Even my handwriting is similar.
Elizabeth: Looks like his, yeah.
Michael: Interesting. Arts and creativity can flourish both in academia and in the professional world. Can you describe your experience as a student and how those experience shaped your creative approach to life and art?
Diane: Somewhere in elementary school, probably the third grade, the teacher would hold up my work. And my undergraduate degree was in fine arts and the course that I loved was theater design. [00:09:00] And the technical director—and this was Hunter College—and it was the technical director of the Hunter College theater who really made me feel special.
Elizabeth: You were special! You still are special!
Roger: When I met you, you were doing theater design in high school. You designed the sets for the—
Diane: That’s true.
Roger: For the—
Diane: And costumes. Yeah.
Michael: Oh, so that’s when you—
Diane: In high school.
Michael: Okay, so in high school is when you started designing sets?
Diane: Yes, but it was college that I really thought of it as maybe a career.
Michael: Oh, okay.
Diane: Also, the encouragement that I got—
Diane: —from this guy.
Michael: The art scene in New York, did, you obviously experienced that, right? And so could you maybe talk about that a bit?
Diane: One of my teachers had a hanging sculpture at Lincoln Center. Another of my teachers had a one man show at MoMA, the—
Elizabeth: Wow. The Met—Museum of Art, yeah.
Roger: Or Macy’s.
Diane: And Macy’s and those windows were extraordinary.
Elizabeth: They’re a tourist attraction unto themselves. People go to see them, the holiday windows.
Diane: And theater, my birthday present was going to a Broadway show.
Elizabeth: To, speaking of education, Roger, as I remember you did your undergraduate work at SUNY at Stony Brook.
Roger: I did not. I went to five undergraduate colleges.
Elizabeth: Okay, creative decision there.
Roger: And the Civil Rights Movement kept getting in the way of my going to school and staying in school. That said, I went to five undergraduate colleges and I actually flunked out of my first college. And as I never finished high school because I couldn’t pass physics.
Elizabeth: Oh, okay.
Roger: And, and then I went to three of the city colleges, including Hunter College at night. And then I went to graduate school, first at [00:11:00] Northeastern for my master’s degree and I was doing my doctorate work at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Elizabeth: And I remember, at least my first introduction to you back in, oh, probably ‘75 or ‘76 was as a sociologist or part of this action sociology that our shared friend Robert, the late Robert Hunter, was heading up. And I remember you being characterized as a radical sociologist. Can you describe that? What was that movement in the sixties like? What were some of the creative imaginings of that, either radical sociology or action sociology?
Roger: They, they were not necessarily actionists, the radical sociologists. A lot of them were just a different kind of scholar, a different kind of sociologist.
But in general, to answer your question, the, the radical sociologists were the sociological version of what was happening in every major [00:12:00] professional discipline in the late sixties. And there was a radical psychology movement, there were radical doctors—
Roger: —there were radical lawyers, there were, and so on. And the radical sociologists were, I was one of the three original organizers of the radical sociologists. And our publication was The Insurgent Sociologist. And the, the essential notion of critique of conventional sociology could be summarized by saying that traditional sociologists had their palms up and their eyes down. That is to say they took money from the powerful in society or the relatively powerful study to do studies of the powerless, whether it was labor unions or minority communities or [00:13:00] islanders, in anthropology, for example. They, the power structure of the time was wanting to know, the liberal power structure, was wanting to know what might upset the apple cart. And so they put lots and lots of money into supporting sociologists and other professionals to find out what was on the minds and the behavior and what, what things meant, that were important to poor people, to racial minorities. And I guess you could, our, we had a button that really summarized everything, and it said simply “Knowledge for whom?”
Elizabeth: Ah, okay.
Roger: And that’s what it was all about. And it was, we felt you needed to study the power structure and get that [00:14:00] information down to the powerless. Or you needed to use your skills, as I did, to work with organizations that represented people of color or poor people to help them get information on the powerful and help them become more effective in their social movements of those days.
Elizabeth: Let me switch gears and go from the political to the personal and ask you both, Diane and Roger, you all have been married for—
Elizabeth: —60 years?
Elizabeth: 61 years. And I remember you telling me that you got married at the age of 20 because you did not want to be a teen marriage and have the statistics of long-lived marriages working against you. So—
Diane: That’s Roger’s sociology.
Elizabeth: So first of all, Diane, how did you and Roger meet? And can either of you describe the creative leap of imagining [00:15:00] yourselves as lifelong, a lifelong team at such a young age?
Diane: My best friend and his best friend were dating. And they arranged a blind date. We were supposed to go bowling but Roger and Allen came two hours late because they were picking up other girls.
Elizabeth: Oh! You are a player. But you still went out and you went bowling?
Diane: Did we go? I think we did, yes.
Elizabeth: Okay, what about just what it took within your own, sort of, logic models or imaginings to, to make this lifelong commitment at such a young age. And then, happily it worked out. But do you remember?
Diane: I think we were very naive and didn’t think in those terms at all. I, it was the early sixties, people got married at much younger ages than they do now.
Elizabeth: That’s [00:16:00] true.
Diane: And in that sense, we were very conformist.
Elizabeth: To just get married, to get hitched instead of just whatever else other alternatives there are. Yeah.
Diane: And I was happy to get out of my house.
Elizabeth: Sure. Sure. Do you have any other memories, Roger?
Roger: They’re not terribly different from Diane’s. And particularly in terms of envisioning a future, I don’t think we did.
I think you got married because that was the only way legitimately you could have sex at that time. Diane wanted to get out of the house, said something, and basically, we decided we were going to get together and as she got out of the house. And I don’t think we had any idea about being 80-some odd years old and it still being married to each other. Or not married to each other, for that matter. It just wasn’t a part of our consciousness. It was that, you got [00:17:00] married, you lived your life. And we, I don’t think we ever thought about getting divorced at that time. And when we got married, that didn’t happen until much later. And we didn’t really plan a future. We planned that we had to get a job and finish school and, if we planned anything at all. But that’s about all we really planned.
And we were lucky enough, we had, I think a part of our life’s arc is that we were always a little bit ahead of the curve, but never at the absolute front of the curve. And getting married was a part of being a little ahead of the curve at that time, even though a lot of young people got married at that time. And we lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, in a basement apartment where rent was $28 a month. My second [00:18:00] father used to use it as a warehouse ‘cause it was across the street from the school he taught at. And he basically said you guys can live here. And with Diane’s artistic talent in a basement—a grungy basement, I might add—she made a great living environment for us in a three-room, railroad, basement railroad flat where, if the Hudson River rose too high, we got flooded. So we had to learn to turn off the water valve, the shutoff valve so that we wouldn’t get flooded. And then she would go to school, and I would work, and then I would go to school at night, and she would work. And we would somehow shake hands in the car.
Elizabeth: Speaking of early decisions in your life, Roger and Diane, you were both civil rights activists participating in a leadership institute sponsored by the Congress of [00:19:00] Racial Equality in the south in ‘62. Diane, can you give us our listeners a very brief explanation of what some of these civil rights activities were?
Diane: One of the things that I was involved in Houston was with a group, a mixed Black and white group going to the local movie theater, meeting with the manager, and trying to convince him to integrate. It seems silly now, I’m sure we were not successful, but that was our mission. To try. To raise the question.
Elizabeth: Of integrating the movie theaters, yeah.
Diane: Integrating his movie theater.
Elizabeth: Yeah. Wow. Long time ago.
Elizabeth: But still.
Michael: The Freedom Rides, which I think happened prior to your participation, are a great expression of sort of creativity in social change. A direct action that is provocative. It might provoke violence, but [00:20:00] ultimately the goal is that it would lead to some kind of positive change. Roger, obviously, in the leadership institute and beyond, there must have been times when you participated in developing or participating in these kinds of creative actions that were designed. Could you maybe describe some of these activities that come to mind?
Roger: Yeah, I can. And I guess I would start at that leadership institute that Diane was talking about, where we were in Houston, Texas. And we drove from the northeast, New York City, New Jersey area, down to Tennessee and then across, ultimately, to Texas, to Houston, Texas. And we had in that drive some remarkable experiences that basically shaped a lot of our, that left [00:21:00] a deep impression.
Michael: Sure. Because this was your first trip into the south.
Roger: First trip into the south. And one of my buddies in high school was a Black guy who had gone to Morehouse College in the south and came up to New York and was a creative artist. And he invited me to go south with him, I think in the summer of ‘61. Could have even been ‘60.
My mother for the first time, I believe, she said to me, “You cannot do it. I won’t let you do it.” And I was irate. I was, like, how irate an 18-year-old can be, that’s how irate I was. The max, top of the scale.
And a couple of years later, two, three years later we went down, Diane and I, without him to visit with his family in [00:22:00] Chattanooga, Tennessee. And from the minute we got there, we knew that we were disrupting the norm. The, not intentionally, the, this was the parents of our, of my friend. And they said, they were so happy we were here, but we had to go to a campground. We couldn’t stay at their house. And they took us to a campground. Remember that? And we were there for a day or two and we’d drive from the campground to their house and have a meal. And it was like a big deal in the neighborhood that, you know, these white northerners were in this Black environment. And, and we left after a couple of days and said our goodbyes and they were really, in hindsight, not just hospitable but brave. We were in invading their turf even though we were friends of their [00:23:00] son.
And then we drove to do our laundry and I want to say it was Chattanooga, but I’m not positive, and as we pulled out of the parking lot, I ran into, I backed into a car driven by an elderly white woman, a Texan, who was on the board of the Alamo Museum.
Elizabeth: Oh, okay. “Remember the Alamo?” Yes.
Roger: And she asked us what we were doing, where were we going, ‘cause we had New Jersey plates. We didn’t know that that was, like, you don’t travel in the south in those days—
Roger: —with Yankee plates. And, I dented her. And I was very apologetic, and she wanted to know what we were doing and I said, “We’re going to Texas.” Without telling her we were going to a desegregation drive. ‘Cause [00:24:00] we had already been with a Black family and had begun to be sensitive.
Roger: Sensitized. So this woman said, “Oh, you’re such nice young people. Don’t worry about the dent but be sure to visit the Alamo when you go to Texas.”
Diane: And she showed me a copy of a poster that she was carrying. It hadn’t been produced yet. It was the mockup—
Elizabeth: Of the Alamo?
Diane: It was beautiful!
Elizabeth: There you go. Artist to artist.
Roger: I want to make a couple of points because it’s really important relative to continuing the drive to, ultimately, Houston. We first went to Texas, to Austin, Texas. And the campus there was like nothing, it was hard to believe there was a campus, relative to what I experienced as campuses in—
Diane: Many of them.
Roger: —in my [00:25:00] career, right. Then we drove down to Houston, and I remember Diane passing out in the car because we didn’t have air conditioning and it was only about 120 degrees or something like that.
Elizabeth: Right, right. Yeah.
Roger: And we got to Houston, and we went to the motel where we were supposed to be living and it was in the Black community, of course. And for three weeks we lived our life in the Black community of Houston, Texas, in the hotel, eating food in Black restaurants, going to Black churches in the, on weekends on to try and recruit people, finding some resistance among the Black pastors. At that time, this was 1962, it was before Black pastors were happy to see Martin Luther King. It was when they didn’t want to see Martin Luther King.
Michael: And were they resistant in this, for the same reason maybe your mother was resistant that first time? [00:26:00] Just the fear of—
Roger: Yes. And the fear of disrupting their community, just as was the case in what I think was Chattanooga, where my friend’s family lived.
And it was just amazing. The institute changed and the activities relative to what you asked Diane about before, Elizabeth, the activities were picketing. Houston was selected because NASA had been announced.
Elizabeth: Oh, right! Yes.
Roger: And NASA was first beginning, and it was going to be segregated.
Elizabeth: That’s right.
Roger: NASA was going to be segregated. And so, the leaders of the Congress of Racial Equality said this would be a great site and the payoff of integrating would not just be being able to ride on a bus but creating a lot of high paying jobs and—
Roger: —prestigious things for people in [00:27:00] the African American community. We sat in, we picketed, Diane made posters and banners for the actions that we were in. And we called them actions. Just the word you used, Michael. And the three weeks ended, the leadership institute ended, and about a half a dozen of us, I guess, total in either two or three cars, three cars, drove from Houston, Texas to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where one of the participants, who was a regional director of CORE, lived, he and his wife lived. And children lived.
Elizabeth: This was a Black guy as opposed to a white guy?
Roger: Black, yes. A Black guy. And we stopped at a restaurant one night en route somewhere, I can’t tell you where, between Houston and New Orleans. And we went in to get [00:28:00] hamburgers or whatever it was that we were getting, coffee or who knows what it was anymore. I don’t remember. And the glares we got were felt deeply by everyone in the, in our group. And we left. It was clear that if we stayed it was—
Elizabeth: Trouble, yeah.
Roger: It was trouble without any kind of publicity or protection or anything else.
And then, following our stay in Louisiana, one of the participants, a Black participant who was an assistant principal in the Detroit public schools, went with us into Florida and then up to Georgia. And we were we were going to Albany, Georgia, where King had an unsuccessful drive. Desegregation drive and, en route, we stopped to get gas, ‘cause we were needing gas, and—to Albany— [00:29:00] and when we went to get gas, the guy started filling up the car and he looked in the car and there was a Black guy, me, a white guy, and a white woman. And he literally took the gas tank, the gas, the thing he used.
Elizabeth: Oh, nozzle. Yeah.
Roger: Nozzle. The hose. Out of the car. “Get the—” I won’t exactly repeat his words ‘cause we’re on tape but, “—outta here.” And we went to Albany, Georgia. And in Albany, King had left. We were going to join his protest and King had left either the day before or two days before. And we headed north. Oh, we were escorted by the vice president of the school for community affairs or academic affairs, I don’t remember, out of Albany. And he said, “You guys [00:30:00] need to go to Atlanta. That’s where you’ll have to stay.”
Roger: And we drove into, at that time, and this is the summer of 1962, in Atlanta, Georgia, basketball teams could stay integrated—Atlanta was ahead of the game in that regard, baseball teams, jazz performers, celebrities, could stay in one hotel. And we were on our way to that hotel and all of a sudden there are flashing red and blue lights behind us. And it was the cops, and they wanted to know what we were doing and why we were doing what we were doing and were very proud to give us an escort to the northern border of Atlanta.
Elizabeth: Wow. Really run out of town at sunset here. Yeah. Wow.
Roger: [00:31:00] And, and the reason I dwell on that because it’s symbolic of a lot of other actions that ensued in following years. But what’s most important about this narrative for me, I don’t know about for Diane, I suspect probably also, the trip to Houston and the trip from Houston were more significant in terms of understanding the south than were our time—and the, and segregation and racism and vile white people—were, it was more important on the road than it was in this organized desegregation drive in which we were members.
Michael: Sure. ‘Cause it sounds like your drive, I, I can’t remember who said it but, every creative act begins with an act of destruction. And it was almost as if your drive to [00:32:00] Houston and away from Houston, going through those deeply segregated communities as a desegregated car was an act of, that was disrupting and causing people to lose their cool, so to speak. And so you were experiencing all of this rage.
Roger: Exactly. Exactly. And if I can go to my sociological background for a quick second, there is a field of study in sociology called ethnomethodology and the basic principle of it is for the researcher to disrupt the norm and see what the reaction of those who hold that norm is. So, the example that was used in the graduate course I took in sociology on ethnomethodology used somebody went into a church in upstate [00:33:00] New York on Christmas Eve dressed as Santa Claus, and then when the collection plate was passed, he stole the collection plate. And everybody reacted to that. That’s disrupting the norm.
What we did, unbeknownst to ourself and long before I ever knew the word no less the concept of ethnomethodology, on that drive, was to disrupt the normal way of viewing things in the south. And then the last couple of phrases go beyond that.
We were volunteers there. CORE volunteers. Then I went back to New York and became a volunteer CORE leader in a couple of different CORE chapters and thereafter, I became paid. I went through another leadership [00:34:00] training program two years after the first one sponsored, called the National Association of Intergroup Relations Officials, and they were sponsored by the Eleanor Roosevelt Foundation. And what they did was select, of about 5,000 applicants, a total of 75 people, many of whom, most of whom I would say were pretty radical, militant people in those terms of those days. And the way I like to phrase it is they took a bunch of us militants and made us into intergroup relations officials. And, from that time on, from ‘64 until we moved to Crested Butte, I was a paid professional in the Civil Rights Movement. Some would call [00:35:00] me professional agitator. Others, yeah.
Elizabeth: I wanna ask Diane for a moment, or go back to something we were talking about just a minute ago, because my understanding is that in, in movements of social change, in social disrupt– in moments of social and very perilous disruption, it’s really important that the arts and music and dance and song and visual art provide a kind of sanctuary for the spirits of the activists themselves.
And, Diane, I wonder if you could just speak briefly about any experiences you had or just that, that phenomenon of giving solace to and sustenance to and keeping the spirits up when activists or individuals are in a very dangerous position of disrupting a series of social norms that are dangerously, that are very dangerous to disrupt. Can you speak about the arts component of the Civil Rights Movement or other [00:36:00] movements you’ve been involved in?
Diane: We would have parties. Someone, I can’t remember who, called it integration through intox. And I can remember trying to learn to do the monkey, this little—
Elizabeth: This dance.
Diane: —Jewish girl.
Diane: Inhibited, although I had taken dance classes forever, but not the monkey. And I was—
Elizabeth: This was the dance where your arms move up and down and stuff, as I recall.
Diane: Yeah. I was being taught by Michael. What’s his last name? Michael Wright, who became an actor, actually, but he was 13 at the time.
Elizabeth: Oh my. Okay.
Diane: And was not terribly successful at—
Elizabeth: Learning to dance. Yeah. You mentioned earlier that you were making posters and you were providing a kind of visual art dimension to this other process that, without that surround of the visual arts and the sort of music spirit and the integration [00:37:00] through intoxication, the participants and the activists are vulnerable to just losing heart.
Diane: I don’t remember people—
Elizabeth: —losing heart, yeah.
Diane: It was a very—
Elizabeth: Strong, spirited time.
Diane: It was, yes. And I was responsible for setting up the CORE office. I don’t remember, was it Queens CORE or, I don’t remember which CORE office it was. And it, that particular day, Kennedy was shot.
Elizabeth: Oh, wow.
Diane: And I was holding two wires together to hear, so people could hear the news. It wasn’t—
Elizabeth: Yeah, this is what, November 22, 1963.
Diane: It wasn’t, it wasn’t completely set up. And we were and literally holding two wires together so everybody could hear the news.
Elizabeth: Wow. That’s an amazing story.
Speaking of holding things together, I, Roger, let me just go back to you for a moment because I have always thought of you as a community organizer. [00:38:00] And the whole notion of community organizing and that whole, that whole phenomenon is something we heard a lot about, a lot more about during the Barack Obama years because he had been a community organizer and there was a lot of talk about it both in positive and negative terms. Can you give our listeners a very brief description of what some of the guiding principles and creative tactics of community organizing are? I remember learning from you that the, that a good community organizer is invisible, for example, that person’s effective community organization, organizing is also based upon mutual self-interest. And I am not, obviously, a community organizer, but I remember hearing a lot of those sort of founding principles from you way back in the day.
Roger: I think probably the guiding belief, the overarching belief, if you will, of community organizers is that individually people can’t make much [00:39:00] change and that collectively they can. And the organizer’s role is to help people see that possibility, where they can feel, where typically they feel powerless. I’m talking about in underrepresented communities or people, for the most part, who are economically insecure. The typical person individually gets depressed or strikes out and shoots somebody or something like that. But if you can get people to understand that they are being oppressed as a collectivity and you can get them to take a little risk to [00:40:00] create a small, that would result in them demanding a small change, and then go from there and get that change.
So, in New York City, in one of the housing projects that we were organizing, people were being killed at a traffic place and they had been trying for years to get a traffic light. And about six or eight months after we first got into the, that community, the, there was a confrontation with the police. There was a sit-in or picket, I can’t quite remember what, with the traffic department. And lo and behold, the traffic light was installed and no more kids were killed. Or at least for enough time for them to celebrate [00:41:00] that victory. And then the question was, if we could do this, why can’t we get the slumlords around here to clean up their tenements? And so, it started organizing around slumlords.
And you always had—a good community organizer has a couple of different characteristics. One is that he or she is able to listen, because most of the work that you do as a community organizer is listening. And especially at the beginning when you enter a community for the first few months. And the community organizer has to recognize that he or she will never, ever be a leader in that community. That you’ve gotta find people with leadership capabilities, however [00:42:00] you define that, and you’ve gotta meet with them separately and give them extra attention and extra strokes, extra support, so that they are willing to be among the first to stand up and be followed. Because usually it just takes somebody to stand up. And if they do, others will follow. And if they’re well-liked, and you have to know where to look for leaders. And some of the focal points in low-income communities that today it seems a fairly commonplace to talk about or think about, but back then it was popular in barbershops and beauty parlors. Which, most people that came into a community who were for the most part, pretty well-educated, they looked down at that. But that was one of the communal centers, [00:43:00] right? The churches were communal centers. And particularly in low-income communities. And particularly, even more particularly in low-income communities of color. And so, you had to work in that kind of an environment without being recognized as a leader. And if people tried to put you up as a leader, you had to get off it.
Roger: Right away.
Elizabeth: Because it wasn’t about you, it was—
Roger: It was not at all about you, it was about that community. And that, that I guess, answers your question.
Michael: Yeah, let me switch gears a little bit, but actually stay on the theme of community. And go to the Karamu House in Cleveland which, Diane, you had the honor—and I’m fascinated, I want to hear about this—of working at the Karamu House and doing some design work. I, anyway, the [00:44:00] Karamu House is one of the oldest if not the oldest African American theater in the United States. And for me, theater, I think theater is one of the most powerful expressions of community. And so if maybe if you could just talk about some of your experiences at the Karamu House and maybe its impact on you as an artist or your impact on them and just that whole experience of that collaborative creation. ‘Cause ultimately theater is a collaborative art and it requires people to work creatively together.
Diane: Yes. I, first I have to make a correction. It’s not, it was not an African American theater.
Michael: Oh, okay.
Diane: It was an integrated, very unusual for its time. We could do a production of The Glass Menagerie and have a Black woman as the mother—
Diane: —putting on her cape to go to a [00:45:00] Daughters of the American Revolution meeting.
Michael: Oh, okay.
Elizabeth: So this was the precursor to what’s called non-traditional casting today.
Michael: Or colorblind.
Elizabeth: Or colorblind casting.
Diane: Colorblind casting. And it was a very special place. It operated mostly through the arts. There were two theaters, a proscenium and a theater in the round. There were every kind of art class you could think of, photography, dance, music. If I ran dry of ideas, I could go take a dance class. The staff were, they, nothing was ever too much for them. They were always ready to do more. Very special place. It was located in the Black community. It was started by two white social workers—
Michael: Oh, okay.
Diane: —in the, I was there for the 50th anniversary of the place.
Diane: And so—
Elizabeth: This was in [00:46:00] 1963, 4?
Diane: Around there.
Roger: Started in 2015.
Roger: And the Jelliffes were both Quakers.
Elizabeth: 1915, you mean, Roger.
Elizabeth: 1915. Yeah.
Diane: Yeah, and it grew and grew until it, it occupied an entire city block.
Michael: The theater occupied an entire city—
Diane: Not just the theater.
Diane: This whole complex.
Michael: Oh, okay.
Diane: They also had a Golden Age Club and care for, for they had a nursery.
Elizabeth: Okay. And it’s still in operation today?
Diane: And it’s still in operation. And a couple of Black actors who achieved some fame came out of there. Ron O’Neal, who did the first Black—what are they?
Roger: Black exploitation—
Diane: Exploitation film.
Elizabeth: Oh, yeah. Shaft and all the—
Diane: Yeah, and it was—he did the first.
Roger: He, that was him.
Elizabeth: That was him! He played Shaft?
Elizabeth: Oh, I should have known.
Roger: He was the first Shaft.
Elizabeth: He was the [00:47:00] first Shaft. Okay.
Diane: Okay, let me—I don’t remember the name of the film, but and a couple of others. It was a training ground as well as a community center for people interested in any of the arts. It had a devoted audience. Black and white.
Michael: And you worked on set design?
Diane: I did sets.
Michael: Can you—
Diane: Technical theater, paint, painting drops and building and—
Michael: Can you share your experience maybe with one of your favorite productions that you did there?
Roger: Sneaky Fitch.
Diane: Yes. This was a premiere performance of a one-act play called The Death and Life of Sneaky Fitch.
Elizabeth: Oh, okay.
Diane: And I did it in, it was theater in the round. And I did it as comic book style. Early comic books with pointillism.
Elizabeth: Oh, this—
Elizabeth: —Lichtenstein sort of thing.
Diane: Yes, yes. And it was also the time of, it was [00:48:00] a comedy show on TV where they did little sight gags and so I incorporated a lot of gags, window shades going up.
Elizabeth: Oh, okay, yeah!
Diane: And that was great fun.
Diane: That was really wonderful.
Michael: And the cast was totally integrated? And the production team?
Diane: Totally. Yes. Totally.
Elizabeth: Wow. Yeah. What a great nurturing environment.
Elizabeth: Just creatively, so energizing.
Roger: I’d like to add something to Karamu House if I can.
Roger: They had the best parties, cast parties and other parties, that I’ve ever attended anytime in my life. They were absolutely outrageous. And I remember a guy who I had, this was a Black guy from the south and we were doing wine or beer or shots or whatever we were doing. And, and this [00:49:00] guy said, “Now you’re ready for some real liquor!” And he pulled out a bottle of white Lightnin’.
Elizabeth: Oh no!
Roger: It was the only time I’ve ever had White Lightnin’.
Roger: And it was moonshine, exactly what it was.
Roger: And it was just great. And the parties there were great. And while Diane was doing that, following that internship, I told you the second leadership training thing I went through, my first paid position was as the youth director of a council in union relations in Cleveland, which is why we moved to Cleveland at that time. And that began my, my paid professional career.
Elizabeth: Thank you for listening to part one of our interview with Roger and Diane Kahn. Stay tuned for part two next week.
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