On January 23, Hal Baron, one of the founders and the first Board Chair of EcoViva, passed away at his home in Chicago, accompanied by his wife of 63 years, Paula, and their children and grandchildren. Hal was 86, but his commitment to social justice and his contributions to the causes and people he loved and supported never diminished. He was organizing and making connections to support our partners in Central America to the very end.
Hal was an activist, scholar, philanthropist, and champion of progressive politics throughout his life. He earned his doctorate degree from the University of Chicago and taught at City Colleges of Chicago. In the 1960s, he worked to advance the cause of civil rights as the research director for the Chicago Urban League. He fought to desegregate Chicago schools and helped initiate a legal challenge against racial segregation in housing. In the 1970s, Hal taught in the Urban Studies Program at the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM). Later, in 1982, he served as the Issues Director for mayoral candidate Harold Washington. Hal then served as Washington’s chief policy adviser when he was elected Chicago’s first Black mayor.
I met Hal in 1998 through a mutual friend, Juancho Donahue, on my first trip to El Salvador. Hal, Juancho and I were part of a long march in the Salvadoran countryside that culminated in communities of the Lower Lempa declaring themselves a Zone of Peace in a moving public ceremony. After being torn apart by civil war, it is remarkable that communities settled by former combatants and sympathizers from opposite sides of the conflict came together to make a an enduring commitment to peace.
After Juancho introduced us, I was immediately in awe of Hal’s brilliance and insight. He quickly realized that the organized community we wanted to support did not need a technical intermediary, because our new partners, La Coordinadora del Bajo Lempa, were capable of making their own decisions and determining their own priorities. This seemingly simple idea, of taking our direction and leadership from our grassroots partners in Central America, has been our guiding principle ever since.
For the next 20 years I worked with Hal as our organization grew, renamed itself EcoViva and relocated from Austin, Texas to Oakland, California. Our partners grew as well; they began as a small aggregation of communities organized to combat the disastrous annual flooding caused by the unannounced release of waters from a hydroelectric dam upstream on the Lempa River, then managed by the conservative ARENA government. They have since become a major local and national force for community-led environmental stewardship and sustainable economic development. Most recently, they formed the Mangrove Alliance, a coalition of community groups from different parts of El Salvador that is working with the government to create a national coastal conservation policy and protect the unique and vital ecosystems along El Salvador’s Pacific coast.
It was Hal who figured out how to successfully intervene in US policy discussions on the development of the Bay of Jiquilisco to prevent the destruction of the very delicate mangrove forests and watershed, ecosystems that provide livelihoods for residents and are nesting grounds for four endangered species of turtles. It was Hal who as a leader of the Board was always studying the geopolitical situation of our partners and determining how we could assist them in the most effective and strategic way.
The “hustler from Chicago,” as Hal styled himself, was crafty indeed, always seeking opportunities to make an impact. Through their foundation, Communitas Charitable Fund, Hal and Paula made strategic grants to advance the causes of self-determination and environmental conservation. He was deeply analytical, thoughtful in his understandings, and reasoned and collaborative in his approach to solutions.
After I succeeded Hal as Board Chair of EcoViva, he constantly challenged me with his relentless quest for information, his probing questions, and his determination to find answers.
And yet in spite or perhaps because of his great intellect, Hal was also a great listener. He was always ready to learn from the experiences of people on the ground, to understand the lessons they learned as well as offer his own. Hal went beyond uncritical support and helped guide EcoViva to work as a partner in true solidarity with our sister organizations in Central America, imagining life in their shoes, with their problems, concerns, and resources. Hal used his incredible mind and abilities to serve others, and was driven by a profound love and compassion for fellow people.
In addition to missing Hal’s mentorship, those who knew Hal will miss his companionship as well. When I visited Chicago, he would come to the door in his slippers, meet me with a warm smile, offer me a Scotch, and then we would talk about EcoViva or El Salvador or the world’s problems for hours on end. He would dig in with an eagerness and enthusiasm that I have seen few others possess. Hal always took my own insights and knowledge and helped put them in perspective and place them in the bigger picture and strategy. And if by chance he and I were a bit off or being unrealistic, Paula would add her wise and very practical counsel.
Sadly this summer we won’t be able to celebrate our annual dive in Lake Michigan.
Hal’s final words to me, “We’ve had a good run,” was an understatement. Hal, your memory and your legacy keep us all pushing forward. We love you very much. Thank you for all you have given us.
A memorial for Hal will be held March 12, 2017 at Loyola University in Chicago, beginning at 11:30 am. Please contact EcoViva at (510) 835-1334 or firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
Read more about Hal: “Hal Baron, adviser, ‘Idea Man’ to Mayor Harold Washington,” Chicago Sun Times, 8 February 2017; “Hal Baron, adviser to Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, dies at 86,” Chicago Tribune, 16 February 2017.