Graf will leave BUILD to recruit minority organizers

September 18, 1990|By Michael Ollove

He may be the most influential figure in Baltimore you never heard of, and now, after 10 years, he is leaving.

On Thursday, Arnold Graf, who transformed BUILD from a handful of passionate but ineffective advocates for the poor into the city's most influential community organization -- one that has helped shape the city's public agenda and participated in Baltimore's recent initiatives in education and housing -- will end his direct involvement with the group.

Mr. Graf, 46, is resigning as supervisor of the southeast region of the Industrial Areas Foundation. The foundation consists of 24 chapters across the nation, including BUILD -- Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development -- and Prince George's County's Interfaith Action Communities.

For the next 18 months, Mr. Graf will be directing IAF's efforts to recruit minority organizers, who in turn would be called upon to create more IAF organizations.

Interfaith Action Communities was founded in 1941 by self-professed radical agitator Saul Alinsky, who believed that the poor, when organized in large numbers, could force a role for themselves in a city's public policy-making.

Although city and business officials were put off by BUILD's confrontational tactics in its early days, the organization's successes in recent years have earned BUILD respect if not affection. In particular, Mr. Graf, 46, has won accolades from the city's boardrooms and back rooms.

Robert C. Embry, president of the Abell Foundation and the State Board of Education, described Mr. Graf's departure as "a great loss." Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who meets on a regular basis with the BUILD's leaders, called Mr. Graf "a good friend to the city and to the state."

In an interview last week, Mr. Graf said that one of the dangers facing BUILD -- which represents 50 Baltimore churches -- was that it might become part of the establishment now that it had the ear of the mayor and other city leaders. The challenge, he said, will be to remain "part of the loyal opposition, to maintain an edge."

After organizing in poor communities of Milwaukee and San Antonio, Mr. Graf, a rumpled, soft-spoken man, came to Baltimore in 1980. At that point, a group of pastors had tried unsuccessfully to launch an IAF group here. Mr. Graf succeeded by concentrating at first on modest projects.

Among the earliest targets were Baltimore banks, which BUILD concluded were refusing to write mortgages in black neighborhoods. About 100 BUILD members entered Provident Bank and kept tellers busy by asking them to turn dollars into cents and back again. It wasn't long before the banks agreed to alter their practices.

BUILD next embarked on more ambitious projects. Working with the Greater Baltimore Committee, it helped launched the Commonwealth Program, which guarantees jobs or help with college financing for hundreds of qualified Baltimore students. It helped craft a $30 million partnership between the city, state and area churches to launch the largest home-ownership project for low-income families in Baltimore's history. And this year, one of its members co-chaired the evolving plan to reorganize the city's schools.

But Mr. Graf acknowledges that BUILD hasn't been wholly successful. "If there is a place BUILD has not addressed well which it should address well to be true to who we are it is the organization of people in public housing," he said.

In 1984, Mr. Graf stepped aside as BUILD's lead organizer to become the IAF supervisor for the Southeast. In that capacity, he began new organizations in Tennessee and Prince George's County while continuing to oversee BUILD.

With Mr. Graf's departure, BUILD will be supervised by James Drake, an IAF supervisor in New York.

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