THE POOR SOUTHERN BOY
Larry is about as engaged a citizen as you are likely to find. Having grown up very poor in the projects of Atlanta, Georgia, the only son of a hardworking high school-educated single mother, he quickly learned the value of hard work and the difficulties of poverty. Larry and his mother wandered Atlanta since his mother was an orphan and didn’t have anywhere to settle. They were briefly homeless and forced to stay in ramshackle places like a motel that functioned as a crackhouse. However, these difficult times quickly impressed upon Larry the need for grit, determination, and community. Thankfully, he found an out through education.
Larry was the first one in his relatively small family who ever attended college. He graduated Covenant College early with a degree in biblical and theological studies, in addition to being the first-ever recipient of the biblical languages minor. In his time in college he not only learned theology, but also what it meant to be a part of a community. Through exposure to the Grand Narrative of History and interactions with students from all over the world, Larry quickly came to see the value in differing perspectives and cultures. It was this desire to see and engage the world that led Larry to his awakening as a world citizen.
It was toward the end of his tenure in college that Larry became an engaged citizen. The Iraq War was in full swing and he decided he could not stand by and be silent as the righteousness of the war was being preached from the pulpit at his school. Therefore, Larry began his first of many engagements with “the system” by protesting what he saw as the school’s blind allegiance to political conservative dogma. He not only wrote and distributed tracts calling for the end of the war, but actively spread public art denouncing it. That’s when Larry really began to question everything he’d been taught.
Protesting the perceived dogma of his school was what began Larry’s epoch as a notoriously engaged citizen, but it was by no means the most formative. Learning, a skill taught to him by the teachers at the very college he was protesting (ironically enough), became an all consuming passion. He voraciously devoured paradigm-altering classics like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Grapes of Wrath, 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and, most importantly, the writings and sermons of fellow Atlanta native, and American hero, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. These great American works helped Larry intellectually fine-tune his passion for social justice and channel it into action.
His most public demonstration (pun intended) of his passion for social justice came with his participation in the Occupy movement. Larry was involved very early on in Occupy. Having been inspired by the so-called Arab Spring, he badly wanted to channel his passion for social justice and his talents as an orator into a similar movement in the states. He helped build the infrastructure for Occupy Philadelphia, including synthesizing the group’s democratic principles into a set of applicable processes for use in the General Assemblies. He also planned and led many marches, direct actions, and group visioning exercises. His influence was not limited to local issues, however. He was also a co-founder of a number of national and global initiatives such as InterOccupy, a global communications network, the National Gathering Working Group, responsible for planning a national convening of Occupy activists from around the country, and Occupy Sandy New Jersey, a wildly successful grassroots relief effort after Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
Larry was so immersed in this newly vibrant social justice world that his work did not go unnoticed. Consequently, he quickly found himself professionally employed as an organizer, event planner, and political manager. His work with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, and the Occupy Sandy New Jersey Organizer’s Cooperative (which he co-founded and wrote the bylaws for) led to many achievements very quickly. Chief among these accolades were getting paid sick days legislation passed in Philadelphia, unseating a nominee for Secretary of Labor (the first time a nominee had ever had to withdraw after public pressure), starting a petition that got the city of Philadelphia’s public money out of Wells Fargo for their predatory lending practices, and getting tip protections for servers making the tipped minimum wage passed through the US Congress.
As a result of this success, Larry has been invited to many public forums and symposiums on civic engagement including, but not limited to, Yale, Villanova, NYU, and Johns Hopkins Universities.
Larry’s professional roles as community organizer, national coordinator of digital organizing, co-founder of non-profit initiatives, campaign manager, and citizen lobbyist have made an impact at a local all the way up to the national levels of governance.
If you ask Larry what his greatest achievement as an engaged citizen is he would tell you that it is the Vision for a Democratic Future that was crafted at the 2012 Occupy National Gathering (NATGAT), which he also proposed and led organizing efforts for. This document, a horizontally crafted exercise in group facilitation and direct democracy, was the result of a process that Larry engineered that took advantage of his training by a former UNICEF President and NYU Professor of networking. The process utilized the science behind effective communication and horizontal democratic procedures to be able to democratically craft a statement with an unlimited amount of people while taking everyone’s opinions into account. However, it also organically produced useful feedback for the larger group because it synthesized similar ideas for presentation. The document, which can be found here, was a picture of what more than a thousand engaged citizens who came through NATGAT envisioned for a democratic future.
As a result of all of his civic engagement over the last decade, Larry was duly elected twice in the past year for positions in local government. He was elected Inspector of Elections for his ward, without even campaigning, and most recently was chosen by his neighbors as the Democratic Committeeman for the 23rd division of the 27th ward in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, Larry recently resigned these positions. A commentary on his decision can be found here.
Larry’s vision to continue as an engaged citizen involves breaking down the dividing wall of tribal conflict currently running rampant across our polarized political world. Mass and social media, fueled by advertising dollars and campaign contributions, have created echo chambers that are igniting tribal conflict. Larry, as a man of the Spirit, feels that we, as citizens, do best when we work together, as Americans, instead of being divided by the best laid plans of those who benefit from our division.
If Larry Swetman’s recent past is any indication it will not be long before his prolific civic engagement crescendos with ever more increasing responsibilities. Thankfully, he’s just the man for the job.