The second speaker in the 2014–15 James Durbin Entrepreneurship Speaker Series was Father John Baumann, SJ, founder and CEO of PICO, who participated in a wide-ranging discussion with HNU President William J. Hynes, PhD, on Tuesday, October 15. Baumann founded PICO in 1972 to help people redevelop their communities and actively engage in the democratic process. From its humble start in Oakland, PICO now has more than 1,000 member institutions and it is one of the largest faith-based community organizations in the U.S.
Baumann opened the discussion by speaking about some of the experiences that influenced his decision to create PICO. The period during which Baumann was beginning his training as a Jesuit priest was one of change—a decade that included the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the anti-war movement, and the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II). After his first year of theological training was over, Baumann was assigned to the field in Chicago, where he encountered Saul Alinsky, the man regarded as the father of modern community organizing.
“Saul Alinksy was one of the people who delivered a workshop for us, and he was a fascinating person. The way he could describe the importance of how to make democracy work in our communities and the importance of bringing people together was remarkable,” Baumann said. “So with that experience, with the workshops that Alinsky gave, we were given placements. And my field placement was under the direction of Tom Gaudette, who was an Alinsky lieutenant. Guadette was really helpful in being a mentor to me over the years.
“The experience in Chicago really opened me up too. I reflected on my studies and on theology. Part of our spirituality as Jesuits is the whole notion of seeing God in all things and that became much clearer to me.”
In 1972, Baumann was called back to California, where he started his first community-organizing group, the Oakland Training Institute. Baumann explained that he did not have plans to expand the reach of the Oakland Training Institute, but due to the excellent work the group had done and the publicity they had received for it, they were invited into the communities of Santa Ana and San Diego. As a result of the expansion, the organization changed its name to the Pacific Institute for Community Organization, or PICO for short (while the organization’s name is no longer an acronym, it still retains the name PICO).
At first, PICO followed a model that involved mobilizing people to take action on issue that affected their communities. Baumann explained that, while this worked for a time, it was not a sustainable philosophy. In 1984, PICO switched to a model of faith-based community organization, and a philosophy of mobilization that was focused on values instead of issues.
“What we discovered was that a way for people to express their values is through organization. So often people will express their values and they want to know how to act on them. And organization is a way to do that,” Baumann said. “When you have organization, you have power, and you have the power to achieve what you want to achieve. So when you have power, you can take action. In this model, it’s always the people going back to their values. You can always ask whether the actions that you’re involved in relate back to your values. And we have this saying at PICO: Values without power is impotence—power without values is tyranny.”
In the 1990s, PICO expanded across the country. It now has local groups in 20 states, along with statewide organizations in nine states. In addition to its U.S. groups, PICO has international operations in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Haiti, and in Rwanda.
Baumann had recently returned from a trip to visit the PICO organization in Mumeya, Rwanda, and he told a story about all the good work being done by that community. “The people there decided that healthcare was their primary goal. Women who would go into labor had to go 30 kilometers—they had to move outside of Rwanda into Tanzania. And many of the women were dying and children were dying,” Baumann said. “And so as a result of the organizing they got land allocated, people themselves built the clinic, and now it’s a 38-room clinic. Now, I think what’s interesting is, as the clinic was being built, they had just finished three of the rooms and they were having this big celebration, and one of the women went into labor. So as they had done with all those who were in trouble, they carried her 30 kilometers away to the nearest hospital in Tanzania. She died on the way and her child lived. This was 2009.
“The community adopted the child and they named her Pico. So her name is Pico. She’s five and a half years old now. She’s the cutest little thing, and she’s a little celebrity now in the community. She’s learning English and so is her adoptive mother. So it’s a great story of what happened there.”
At the end of the evening, Baumann reflected on the past 40 years of PICO and what he sees for the future of the organization. “Over the next six years, PICO’s priority is to restore the role of religion as a force for inclusion and equality, and to place economic dignity and racial equity at the center of our work. PICO is multicultural, it’s faith-based, it’s about the promotion of justice, it’s non-partisan, and it makes democracy work. People understand better what it means to be a citizen.”
The next guests in this year’s speaker series are Patrick Turner ’12 and Bianca Frediani, co-founders of Bed Bandits. Bed Bandits manufactures mattress toppers, and for every three sold, the company donates one to a homeless shelter. Join the conversation on November 6, at 4:30 p.m. in the VCPA Studio Theatre.