“But maybe what makes me love Rich so much is that he has humanized social change, often made it fun (and funny!) and brought along unlikely power to be part of the solution.”
I do not know, and do not want to know, how many shiva calls I have made, but I can safely say that I have never left a shiva house like the one for the late Richard Male, who died Dec. 31, 2022. I left with a book about Richard Male’s life, A Rich Life. It is not an autobiography, nor was it written years ago. It was written under the sword hanging over Male’s head these past couple of years. Why should those who loved him need to tell him after he died how they wished they had told him how much they loved him while he was alive? Why not tell him now?
It is a beautiful book and an emotional book, but it is not maudlin. Nor is it funereal. It is beautifully conceived, beautifully edited and beautifully produced. Four color. Long pieces. Also snippets. Gorgeous photos. Gratitude — lots of gratitude from the many and the very diverse collection of people and activists whom Male taught, trained, coached and motivated. Motorcycles. Expeditions. Gardening. Family. The full range of Richard Male. But most of all the book is something else. Its vivid pieces add up to the story of a life dedicated to humanity in ways both bold and kind, innovative and as old as the immortal words of the Prophet Micah, “What does G-d require of you? To do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your G-d.”
I confess straight out. I had no idea of the range and the determination of Male’s commitment to remake the world. He spent some four years in the Mississippi Delta, in Missouri, Tennessee and elsewhere organizing. That’s the key word in Male’s life: organizing. Teaching groups large and small how to counter injustice, how to protest, to do it in a way that makes a difference, not merely noise. Early on, a black friend of Male’s couldn’t get a haircut because the barber “didn’t know how to cut black hair.” Lo and behold, protesters soon filled the area of the barber shop. Male knew how to get it done.
For Richard Male, organizing was not an impulsive thing, not an emotional reaction, not a one-time stunt.
It was thought out, systematic and sustained. Organizing was just what it said it was: teaching the “grassroots” how to change whatever powers there were that kept them down. Organizing was founding nonprofits, then counseling nonprofits, then organizing many non-profits into larger bodies that made a difference across this country, and then across many countries — Ethiopia, Guatemala, Mongolia, Botswana, Kenya.
The list of organizations that Male founded or counseled number in the thousands. His main bases of operation became the Community Resource Center and the Colorado Assn. of Nonprofit Organizations. “Rich . . . the guru of nonprofits in Colorado . . . ”
In A Rich Life, friends and mentees express their gratitude — friends from Africa, from all over the US, from Denver, from New York. You name it.
I am reminded of what was said after the passing of the late historian of philosophy, Harry Austryn Wolfson, in 1974. His books were filled with so many learned references in so many languages that, if one did not know better, one would think that “Harry Austryn Wolfson” was a committee, not a person. Given the range of Richard Male’s activism, one could be excused for thinking “Richard Male” was a committee, and a large one at that.
Oh, did I mention disability rights? Male founded ADAPT, which helped pass the Americans with Disabilities Acts. And what about the United Way? It had a lock on corporate giving, meaning, the only groups that would receive funding from workplace gifts were mainline philanthropies. But other philanthropies, perhaps smaller, perhaps edgier, perhaps activist, would not. Male changed that.
Changed. He had the patience, the persistence, the will to work through all the entanglements. This is what it takes to work in the nonprofit field, at least in my experience. The rules. The personalities. The laws. It takes a certain mindset and personality to see all this through to the ultimate change.
My colleague Larry Hankin dug out the coverage in the IJN of Richard Male; one story that Larry wrote in 1988 and one in 2006. The latter was about Male the Gardener. Yes, it conveyed that Male eschewed pesticides and was considerate of the earth. But this could be said about countless gardeners. What the story really showed was that an activist in pursuit of big changes on a global scale could equally relish the small pleasures of a backyard garden.
If this breaks a stereotype of the singleminded fanatic revolutionary, one stereotype does come through in A Rich Life. Money. It was not Male’s goal, and he was stuck often enough without a cent. Add this to the qualities of this lovely book, subtitled, The Perennial Richard Male: humor. Stories of his indifference to money. Somehow, Male knew how to raise funds for all manner of good causes, and knew how to teach others to do the same, but, in her exquisite portrait of their long relationship, Evelyn Lifsey Male notes that she saw early on that graduate school would have to be in the cards for her. There would have to be at least one steady income.
Who does one thank for this unique book? All of the friends, associates, family and students of Male for putting this book together? Yes, of course; but not mainly. The main thanks go to another person, the person who motivated and shaped the friends, associates, family and students, the person who, as one of his students poignantly recalled, taught them more by listening than by talking.
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