Jim Drake never told organizers what they needed, but he showed them how to ask for it. Once, when then Transportation Secretary Frederico Pena tried to stonewall neighborhood organizers with a dazzling speech, saying nothing about improving conditions at the overcrowded 72nd Street subway station, Drake called his bluff: “All Jim did was lean over and say, ‘Ask for a meeting with Virgil Conway,'” president of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, recalled the organizer, Vonda Brunstein. “And that was the kind of thing Jim was good at–sifting through all the verbiage of politicians and elected leaders, and pulling out just the right thing to ask for.” They got the meeting, and eventually won increased service at that station.
On Monday, September 3, Labor Day, Jim Drake’s long organizing career ended, when he died of lung cancer. He was 63.
As director of the northeast region of the Industrial Areas Foundation, a national network of faith-based organizing groups, Drake trained a generation of neighborhood activists in Harlem, Brooklyn, the South Bronx and across the country to shift political power to their own communities. With his help, these groups won thousands of small victories, as well as larger, visionary ones like 800 units of Nehemiah housing and even an entire public high school, Bronx Leadership Academy.
“The thing that I really felt with Jim was this sense of a possibility of a new politics–reinvigorating a kind of political participation in which self-interest could drive rich and poor to come together,” said Bruce James of West Siders Together, who went to Drake for help after his block suffered 28 murders in a year and a half.
Drake learned his craft going up against border vigilantes in the nation’s first campaigns to organize migrant farm workers. As a young seminarian-turned-organizer, he worked alongside Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in California, Arizona and the Rio Grande Valley from 1962 to 1979. He lost some of his hearing when a Teamster goon, hired by management, blew an electronic bullhorn into his ear to keep him from talking to the farm workers.
“People were beaten, people were jailed, people were threatened at gunpoint,” said Harvard professor Marshall Ganz, who worked with Drake on the UFW campaigns. “He had a lot of courage; he had a very powerful presence.”
Standing over six feet tall with a bushy handlebar mustache, he used his physical presence when needed, even standing nose-to-nose with a shotgun to demand workers’ rights. Once, when guns failed to intimidate Drake, border vigilantes tackled him and tried to pull his mustache out by the roots.
In the Northeast, Drake leaves behind a gap that will be hard for the IAF to fill. Organizers say they will be able to work without him–he was, after all, an organizer himself–but they’ll miss his constant mentoring. “His presence was enough to make us do well, and better than we thought we could, in many cases,” said Brunstein. “He didn’t have to say anything, but knowing he was there gave me confidence.”
A memorial service for Jim Drake will be held on Saturday, September 15 at 4 pm at St. Jerome’s Church in the Bronx.