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Progressive activist/singer Si Kahn hangs up his organizing shoes

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For a guy who's retiring, Si Kahn seems awfully busy. Kahn announced late last year that he will step down May 1, 2010 as executive director of Grassroots Leadership, the Charlotte-based, community organizing group he founded 30 years ago. The 65-years-old-but-looks-10-years-younger rabbi's son may be finished helping ordinary people around the South and Southwest organize to protect their rights and interests, but he certainly hasn't slowed down yet. When we caught up with Si at GL headquarters in Elizabeth, he had just come off a tour in which he spent time visiting, talking and singing with the organization's supporters around the country. The next day, he was set for a trip to Seattle, and then on to New York with a meeting to find a producer for a musical he wrote.

Did I forget to mention? Si Kahn is also a songwriter and folk singer -- an internationally known folk singer, in fact, with fans all over the U.S. and in Europe, where his records sell well and he fills halls. He writes songs about many things, but he's most known for his music about workers and their families, such as "Aragon Mill," which over the years became a labor anthem.

It's been said that Si is the most famous Charlottean whom most people in Charlotte don't know about; that's probably because he's spent so much of the past 30 years on the road with Grassroots Leadership, on top of his concerts and folk festival appearances.

The way Si sees it, he's combined the two things he does best. In his organizing efforts, he helps regular folks, "ordinary heroes" who are working to improve their lives and the world. Those people, in turn, often become the inspiration for his songs, which he then sings as part of his organizing work. Most of the profits from his concerts have gone back into Grassroots Leadership.

It's a way of life that has kept Kahn incredibly busy for decades, and has won him the respect of many -- including Pete Seeger, the one person most associated with combining singing and political action. In 1986, Seeger and Kahn joined singer Jane Sapp on a trio album, Carry It On: Songs of America's Working People. Afterward, Seeger told writer Frye Gaillard, "I'm a great admirer of Si Kahn. He's a solid thinker who is able to humanize the political -- an absolutely extraordinary guy. I hope he lives to be 120."

Under the extraordinary guy's leadership, GL's racially diverse staffers have helped people get organized for grassroots activism, centering on a variety of social justice issues. Kahn emphasizes that GL provides resources, advice and experience to groups who already want to fight for their causes; the organization doesn't pick an issue and then find locals to take it up. "Grassroots Leadership isn't the type of group that tells people, 'These are the most important issues and here's what we need you to do about them.' If someone is working on an issue that we believe in, and think we can contribute something to, we're glad to get involved," he explains.

In recent years, GL has aided campaigns to end for-profit, private prisons, and in support of immigrant rights. GL was among those who worked behind the scenes to stop a proposal for an immigrant detention center, first in Mecklenburg, and then in Gaston County. But it's in Texas that GL enjoyed its most recent big victory, when they joined with and helped other groups, including the ACLU, to stop the imprisonment of immigrant families in the Hutto Residential Center, a state prison in Taylor, Texas.

"[Hutto] had 150 children locked up with their parents behind razor wire -- not overnight, but six months or a year or more," says Kahn. "We had six-and-a-half paid staff members, that was it, and here we are taking on the U.S. government, the Department of Homeland Security, ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], and the for-profit/private prison industry. One of the things we did, in effect, was create a people's lobby. We did it through house meetings, through vigils, every week. We stood out there in front of the prison; we brought presents to the kids at holiday times; and made sure it all got in the media, and pointed out to people in power that the media was covering the issue. We collected over 75,000 signatures of support and were willing to take them to Washington to present them to President Obama, and to the head of Homeland Security."

Last August, the Obama administration announced that it would immediately stop sending families to Hutto, as part of an overhaul of the way the nation detains immigration violators. The families who were at Hutto have been moved to the much-smaller Berks Family Residential Center in Pennsylvania, where kids are educated and other family services are provided.

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