Remembering Alvin Schorr
Posted on 09/30/16 by Amy HanauerPolicy Matters' Amy Hanauer pays tribute to social justice champion Alvin Schorr.
[caption id="attachment_25124" align="alignright" width="450"] Photo courtesy of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences.[/caption]
I recently had a chance to remember one of our founding board members, Alvin Schorr, who died earlier this year at the age of 94 after a life spent creating, implementing, and studying social policies to help struggling families. After working as a social worker and executive in various welfare agencies, Alvin did research and planning for the Social Security Administration and the Office of Economic Opportunity under Lyndon Johnson. He held increasingly senior academic roles at Brandeis, New York University, Catholic University and finally Case Western University in Cleveland, where I was lucky enough to meet him. Below are my remarks about Alvin at a memorial service. In the two boxes are some of Alvin’s own words, one from one of his books, the other from one of his many guest editorials.
When I moved to Ohio, the first person to get behind the work I wanted to do here was Michael Charney, a teacher, union activist, and advocate for urban education. Michael introduced me to his wife, lawmaker CJ Prentiss, who introduced me to labor leader John Ryan, who introduced me to Alvin Schorr. And those four people were among the first to champion the idea of creating a policy research institute in Ohio focused on the lives of poor and working families.
It was a good thing that Alvin joined us because between them, Michael, CJ and John had already alienated half the power structure in Cleveland. But Alvin gave our effort legitimacy, so that the Gund and Cleveland Foundations and later Community Shares felt comfortable handing us money.
The first thing I remember about Alvin was that he was someone who made me feel at home in Cleveland. My early years were spent in northern New Jersey in an intellectual, liberal, Jewish family (although less intellectual, less liberal and less Jewish than Alvin). When I visited Ann and Alvin in their Reserve Square apartment with its plants, art and books filling every corner, it was like walking into the New York apartment of my great uncle and aunt, Milton and Ethel, NYC school teachers.
I visited often because, while I dealt with most of my board members by e-mail, Alvin hated e-mail. Once at a meeting, when (board member) Joyce Goldstein and others had their cell phones out, I joked that they were sending him e-mail on their phones. Alvin was horrified, though of course by a year or two later, that is in fact what we all were doing.
Since he hated e-mail, when I couldn’t come see him, I called. He didn’t love the phone either. He preferred that I come to his apartment, sit down like a civilized human being, and have a conversation. Whatever paper I thought needed to be quickly signed would have to wait while he quizzed me about my family. Like the social worker he was, Alvin’s biggest concern was often whether I was spending enough time with my toddler, Max, and later my baby, Katrina. Alvin’s interest in mothers and children extended to an interest in me as a mother and the well-being of my children. Thankfully, I could often happily report that their father, Mark Cassell, who Alvin knew, was taking care of them. That always seemed to make him laugh – but of course, for Alvin, a laugh was never far away anyway. Despite the grim and sometimes seemingly impossible things he grappled with, Alvin always had a twinkle in his eye.
At board meetings, which he attended faithfully, I always made sure to have decaf coffee for Alvin. But with my now-diminished eyesight I have much more sympathy for how miserable the meetings must have been for him – I didn’t like wasting paper, so I put everything in ungodly small fonts. The lights in the meeting rooms were dim and the fans were loud, so he could often neither see nor hear. But Alvin took it in stride and spoke up whenever he had concerns. I don’t think he ever remained silent about a social wrong and he never remained silent when he thought we were doing things wrong either.
Once, I went to lunch with Alvin and another New York-born social work professor in the restaurant at Reserve Square where Alvin liked to go. The other professor was concerned about the menu. “There’s nothing I can eat,” he said. “I would have the steak, but my doctor told me to eat less red meat. I would have the salmon but my doctor tells me it has too much mercury.” Alvin, who was in his mid 80s at the time, waited a beat and then said “My doctor tells me ‘Alvin…. Eat whatevah you want.”
And Alvin did eat and do and say whatever he wanted, including, when I look back at my notes, things that seem in opposition to each other.
If the civic and labor leaders on my board wanted Policy Matters to dive into timely fights, Alvin argued for a careful, academic approach. When others wanted focus on challenges facing workers, he urged concern for the most vulnerable, who could not find work, and a distance from unions and their agendas.
Yet, once when others on the board thought we should stay out of one policy fight, I have notes in which “Alvin argued that we must distinguish ourselves by point of view: liberal and progressive; and by posture: supporting activism. Others are too objective – we must be willing to join the fray.”
So Alvin was not immune to healthy self-contradiction.
I think Alvin would be pleased by what we are doing today, even as he would surely find things to critique. John Corlett, who now runs Center for Community Solutions, has played an enormous role in ensuring that Ohioans have health insurance. My colleague and Alvin’s friend, Zach Schiller (who will be furious that I mentioned him), has spent much of the last year fighting a bill to make Ohio’s unemployment compensation system among the stingiest in the country. As someone who helped create and study how basic assistance gets families through hard time, Alvin would have been appalled at the proposal. But because of work that Alvin started, Zach is helping to preserve the most basic of assistance for hundreds of thousands of Ohioans who lose a job. We’ve won victories on childcare, minimum wages, GED attainment and college funding, and I think Alvin would be proud of all of those.
For the better part of Alvin’s 94 years of life, he provided a voice for those who often aren’t heard. Over a remarkable career, he fought poverty, using the tools of analysis, research, and advocacy. As a social worker, researcher, professor, administrator, bureaucrat, and service provider, he consistently pushed for a more robust anti-poverty agenda. He never thought we were doing enough, but he never let that stop him from getting up every day and continuing the fight.
I have many quotes hanging above my desk. One of my favorites I think reflects Alvin’s approach to this work too. “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Alvin never abandoned the work in all the days that I knew him. And as I think about his wry wit and his sweetness and his commitment to both the fight and to the people in that fight, I want to share one last parable, which I first heard a few years ago.
When we start out in social justice work, we think it’s a sprint. We’re exasperated and impatient at the pace of change and eager to throw everything into fighting to fix what’s wrong. This was the stage I was at when Alvin met me. It’s hard to see, at that point, how long the fight is going to be and you sometimes forget to hold something back for the next phase – or to take a day off to go to the park with your toddlers.
Later you realize that in fact, the fight for social justice is a marathon and you have to be able to get up and do it over and over and over again. Marathoners don’t work less hard than sprinters – I’ve run a half-marathon so I have a sense – but they do have to plan their pace a little more carefully.
But as you near the end of the marathon and you look at the work that is undone, you realize that the fight for social justice is neither a sprint nor a marathon. It’s a relay race. If you want to reduce poverty, and overcome racism, and achieve equity, you’ve got to run as fast and long as you can, and then you’ve got to pass the baton.
There are many people in this room (and out of this room) to whom Alvin passed the baton, but I’m one of them. I do much of what I do because of Alvin and other past leaders who passed their passion on to me. I miss him, as I have since he left town, but he is always there, a little bit, in my head, with the twinkle in his eye and with his strong moral compass, steering me as I go.
-- Amy Hanauer
Amy is executive director of Policy Matters.