Interview with George Stranahan
by Molly Stranahan
and Molly Stranahan (father and daughter) have served together
on the board of The Needmor Fund for the past 28 years, currently
as chair and vice chair, respectively. The Needmor Fund is
a family foundation that funds community organizing in low-
and moderate-income communities.
You have helped
create many organizations over the years, including the
Aspen Center for Physics, three different schools, a political
caucus, a local tavern, and a store and art gallery. I realize
now that what you were really doing was founding communities-communities
focused on scientific inquiry, education, and neighborhood
camaraderie. Was it, in fact, your intention to create communities?
do you create a community?
"I begin with a vision of what the community might
be and how I might feel within it. That vision and
feeling become compelling, and they draw me into them.
Do the communities fulfill that vision? Never. Do
they fulfill the feeling? Always.
"The communities I help create have
to organize themselves, not into my vision, but
into their vision. Therefore a good bit of the organizing,
both early and late, is in arranging the conversation
so that it creates that communal vision. By including
myself in that conversation I discover that others'
vision becomes my vision. A community that met just
my vision would be a community of one."
-Dr. George Stranahan
I hoped that the organizations I helped start would create
community -which I define as a group or class having common
interests and sharing care, concern, and connection. But
strictly speaking, no one person can create a community.
Communities organize themselves, and, almost always, there
are a few key players without whom the organization would
not take place. I call them the "chief worriers," though
the word "organizers" works too.
How did you come to be a chief worrier?
I have often wondered that. What unconscious need of mine
is met by being a chief worrier? Surely I take no great
joy in worrying. Nor do I particularly enjoy being a chief;
it's kind of a burden. However, I do enjoy the sense of
belonging-and the care, concern, and connection that is
possible in a true community.
relatively lonely as a child. I didn't feel a sense of belonging
in my family or my school; I didn't belong to any neighborhood
group of kids, and I was not good at reaching out further
to find belonging. I learned to live with my loneliness.
adult, I became aware that I had my education, my money,
and my family name; and these permitted a certain influence,
if I chose to use it. I decided to use that influence to
"tickle" communities into existence.
I discovered that "tickling" was not the same as "organizing,"
and that if I really did want the community, I would have
to become a chief worrier. There comes a moment when one
plunges in-or perhaps is sucked in- and the venture begins.
When it succeeds, the rewards are great: One belongs and
is included. Having succeeded the first time out, with the
Center for Physics, I had the confidence, and perhaps the
chutzpah, to try a few more.
How has money helped you to organize communities?
Having money has made a difference. First, it has allowed
me to risk failure. I always knew that food would be on
the table, whether or not one of my ventures succeeded.
Therefore, greater risk was possible for me. There are,
of course, other potential consequences of failure besides
financial ruin, but those have been of little concern to
me. In my mountain-climbing days it was never a failure
not to summit a peak; it was the attempt that was the reward.
there is the practical matter that if a community organizing
venture required money in order to become reality, some
or all of it could come from me. It's easier to get started
if the community being organized is assured early on that
a failure to raise sufficient money will not mean the failure
of the organization. The community benefits from having
financial security from the outset.
is a downside to being both the organizer and the funder,
and that is that the community can become over-dependent
on one person, with the consequent possibility that others
neglect their own responsibilities for the community. It
also becomes easier for others to pick one person to blame
for weaknesses and failures within the community.
If you are a chief worrier and funder of a community, can
you belong to it in the same way that everyone else does?
It took me a long time to get over being angry about being
included differently in the community just because I was
the chief worrier. I thought it was a form of prejudice:
that because I was the chief worrier I couldn't belong to
the community in the same sense as the others. I've gradually
come to accept that even within communities there are times
when I am still lonely.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to help
organize a community?
I would say the following:
try it alone.
Look for a partner early on and continue
expanding your relationships, like ripples on a pond. And
don't start until you know you have the right partner.
Timing is everything.
should be just about ready to form by itself, needing
only pushes, nudges, and good judgment to be tipped into
Ignore early setbacks.
surprised if some people are threatened and are therefore
opposed to the community you are organizing.
Why don't you use the word leader, instead of organizer
or chief worrier?
I am careful to use words like organizer and chief worrier,
rather than the word leader, which I reserve for one who
has done something before and is acting as a guide to those
who follow. In the formation of a new community, nobody
has done it before. We are "making the road by walking."
Yet leaders are needed within a community and it is the
chief worrier's job to see to it that leadership is developed
within the membership. It's a matter of appropriate sharing
of the responsibilities of the community. The Iron Rule
of community organizing is:
Never do for others what
they can do for themselves.
I imagine that some of the lessons you have learned about
organizing communities have come from bumps in the road.
Aspen Center for Physics
As a graduate student who had spent a summer in Aspen,
Colorado, George Stranahan realized that the field
of physics was advanced through talking-through the
give and take of ideas with other scientists. Recognizing
that the natural beauty and serenity of the Rocky
Mountains would be a draw to physicists, in 1962 he
proposed a partnership with the Aspen Institute to
create a center where physicists from around the world
could gather, share ideas, write, and hike.
From the outset, the community space
and common practices have been intentionally designed
to create community. Offices are shared. Weekly
picnics allow families to meet and spend time with
other families. Scientists and their families are
assigned to housing units based on family size,
not on a scientist's prestige in the field.
Rather than contribute the full
cost of the first building, Stranahan knew it was
important for other funders- and fundraisers-to
be involved and committed, so he promised instead
to contribute whatever couldn't be raised from other
Dr. Stranahan stepped down from
his position of chairman and president of the Aspen
Center for Physics in 1972. It is still a thriving
community today, where leading physicists from around
the world come together. (See "In Aspen, Physics
on a High Plane" by Dennis Overbye,
The New York
, Science Times section, Tuesday, August
I remember several notable failures. For instance, years
ago, several of us had a vision of creating a teen drop-in
center in Michigan that would include, besides the usual
services, retail sales, and that the center would be owned
and managed by the teens themselves. themselves. It never
happened because the partners were more talkers than walkers.
failure was when a number of us wanted to charter an alternative
high school that would serve the needs of alienated students
as well as students who were already building professional
careers (in sports or music or other areas). We vastly underestimated
the political skills of the district superintendent, who
felt threatened by such a school. He deployed an attack
in a public hearing that torpedoed the project in a matter
learned from experience that there is a flip side to organizing
a community into birth, and that is accepting its death
and finding an appropriate way to memorialize it. This,
too, requires a common vision: the vision that the community
has served its purpose. This, too, requires organizing:
organizing a celebration of the community's existence and
its demise. Doing that is just about as hard as starting
a new community. Folks are invested. Some find their identity
and/or power in the community. But the burial cannot be
neglected. The unburied dead have a stench that demoralizes
and stops progress.
is a logical consequence to becoming identified as someone
who is good at community organizing: Lots of people will
bring their particular ideas to your doorstep and leave
them, like foundlings. I advise a great deal of discretion
in deciding which of these to adopt. We all belong to multiple
communities, but organizing them should be done one at a
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