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Activist who taught Obama to be community organizer is retiring

Greg Galluzzo is retiring after lifetime as Chicago community activist. He mentored  Barack Obamduring his days as young community

Greg Galluzzo is retiring after a lifetime as a Chicago community activist. He mentored Barack Obama during his days as a young community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. He also started the Fiesta del Sol festival in Pilsen. | Sun-Times Media

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Updated: July 4, 2013 6:24AM

The man who taught a young Barack Obama how to be a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago recalls his ability to talk to anyone, from the very poor to the very rich.

At 69, Greg Galluzzo is weeks from retiring — or at least not getting paid — from the Gamaliel Foundation, the training and consulting organization he has directed since 1986. Galluzzo, also the creator of the United Neighborhood Organization, managed to stay behind the scenes during his 41-year community-organizing career, which he says is the sign of a good organizer.

“We’re not supposed to be in the spotlight,” he said. “We’re suppposed to create the scenario so the indigenous people of the community are our leaders.”

But there are those in the community-organizing world who take a different and very public path. Galluzo met Obama in 1985, and remembers him at age 21 as “a hardworking man, very willing to learn, a man with incredible integrity and a man who was comfortable no matter who he was talking to.”

“He really embraced the community, and the community embraced him,” Galluzzo said. “I think it was one of the more formative moments in his life where he became proud of his own ancestry because the people made him proud.”

Galluzzo met with Obama weekly for a year, teaching him how to raise money for his community organization and how to design community strategies.

“He’s very young, very articulate, but he’s well-educated and so he’s not intimidated talking to anybody,” Galluzzo said. “And yet at the same time, I saw him on many occasions just talk to very low-income people and they would feel wonderful talking to him. They never felt put down. They felt affirmed.”

From his early organizing days in the ’70s until today, Galluzzo has seen the effects of community organizing, based on who is leading the city. He describes Mayor Richard M. Daley as a man who listened to the community, his base, and says the day Mayor Harold Washington died was the saddest day of his life. Washington, he says, “was a hero to this city.”

Galluzzo travels around the world, organizing and inviting people into the political process. But the beginning of his career focused largely on rebuilding schools in Pilsen, a community he calls home. The first thing he accomplished as an organizer was kicking out a “bad principal,” he says, which took 9 months. Since then, he has led community efforts that have helped build nine new grade schools, a high school and a community college.

In the mid 1970s, Galluzzo was front and center when the Pilsen community called on owners of factories near Cermak and Ashland to shut their doors in order for Benito Juarez Community Academy to be built. But it wasn’t an easy fight.

Galluzzo and his organization, the Pilsen Neighborhood Community Council, forced a meeting with Mayor Richard J. Daley, but left angry after Daley told the crowd the decision was out of his control, in the hands of an eminent-domain judge and the Board of Education.

Days later, a judge walked into a Pilsen community group office and asked for details on the fight against the factory owners: “He says, ‘Maybe I can be helfpul,’ ” Galluzzo said. “Two days later, there’s inspectors crawling all over those buildings.”

Building owners were hauled into court and “harassed by city government.”

During the eminent-domain hearing, the judge who had visited Pilsen welcomed about 50 community members into his courtroom. Minutes later, he came out of chambers with owners of the buildings and lawyers and said, “‘A wonderful thing has happened. The owners have agreed to sell,’” Galluzzo recalled.

“That’s the way Daley worked,” Galluzzo said. “He was in some ways a great community organizer. His hands were not on any one thing. His hands were on everything.”

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