The Poker Club (vignette)

Throughout his life, Dr. Baron maintained a complicated relationship with academia.  He wanted his writings to be scholarly and he appreciated the pedagogical and investigative aspects of academic life.  However, he always insisted that his “project” was not ultimately academic (Interview with Lou Turner). He always sought for his work, whether in research, fundraising, networking or policymaking, to be directly relevant to on-the-ground anti-racist, progressive, and community development projects.  Among Chicago civil rights veterans, he was not alone in shirking the limitations of the Ivy Tower in this regard. 

After his time as research director of the Chicago Urban League, Dr. Baron initiated a loose affiliation with Northwestern University’s Center for Urban Affairs (CUA) and took on a teaching position at Associated College of the Midwest (ACM), circa 1971.  Both the ACM and the CUA were populated with Chicago civil rights veterans (John McKnight interview), and many of them shared Dr. Baron’s “one foot in, one foot out” stance towards the academic world (Interview with Dan Lewis). Associated Colleges of the Midwest was founded by a consortium of Chicago-area colleges looking for a way to keep the new generation of rebellious students- the generation that had shut down campuses across the United States in protest of the Vietnam War- from dropping out of the college system.  In order to shepherd these students, the ACM drew from Chicago’s already-existing tradition of academic-activist troublemakers, with the city’s network of religious progressives serving as a model.  One of ACM’s early associates, John McKnight, was frequently brought in to speak to students, his authority entirely deriving from his career as an activist, not any academic credentials (Interview with John McKnight).  Having both composed an important dissertation in the field of economic history and served as the key researcher for Chicago’s civil rights movement, Baron shared a rebellious, yet practical approach to urban politics with his ACM colleagues.

Out of the post-Civil Rights era of Chicago and the ACM urban studies program sprang the “Poker Club,” an informal, yet important periodic gathering of many of Chicago’s anti-poverty activists.  After beginning in the early 1970s, the Poker Club would continue for decades as an important institution within the city’s progressive community. The Poker Club facilitated information exchange, social networking, and the strengthening of solidarity between community organizers, who otherwise tended to clash with mainstream academic and political institutions (Interview with John McKnight).  First-generation Poker Club regulars were Stanley Hallett, John Fish, John McKnight, and of course, Hal Baron himself.

From the 1970s onwards, the Poker Club would regularly meet to play cards, but camping trips and hikes were also common activities.  While the Poker Club was frequently host to debates about policy and politics, the ultimate point was conviviality. While the members came from a wide variety of walks of life- Academics, lawyers, labor leaders, and politicians would drop by- the unifying commitment across the Poker Club was community organizing in Chicago’s impoverished neighborhoods.  Of all the attendees, Hal Baron took Poker the most seriously. While there was always a core group of attendees, people would bring family and friends to poker games, serving to expand attendees’ networks (Interview with Dan Lewis).  

The Poker Club would continue into later generations, with Jody Kretzmann and Dan Lewis being two important second-generation members.  For Hal Baron’s work, the Poker Club was important for spreading the word about EcoViva’s mission in El Salvador among the stateside progressive community.  As two separate Poker Club members attested, Baron took any opportunity he could to “brief” his fellow activists on EcoViva’s work (Interviews with John McKnight and Dan Lewis).  Dr. Baron also recognized that the Poker Club network was a source for expertise on the dynamics of poverty, and the challenges for poverty remediation in urban America. In developing his overarching theorization of civil society, he drew from insights developed by Chicago’s anti-poverty activists about welfare bureaucracy and the urban poor.  When Dr. Baron was brought into the Harold Washington mayoral administration, it came as something of a surprise to the Poker Club.  They were used to operating outside the halls of urban political power, and now one of their own was on the inside (Interviews with Dan Lewis and John McKnight).  However, this was a major aspect of Dr. Baron’s role within the Washington mayoralty, where he could work to ensure that neighborhood groups and anti-poverty advocates could petition the Washington mayoralty for support (Interview with John McKnight).

One of the benefits of the Poker Club was that it could serve as a space for lively discussions about grassroots political strategy.  Dan Lewis recalls one such dialog with Hal Baron in the mid-1990s, following the 1995 publication of Dan Lewis and Kathryn Nakagawa’s Race and Educational Reform in the American Metropolis, a monograph about urban school decentralization in U.S. cities.  The authors’ core argument was that school governance decentralization had the potential to meaningfully reform urban education systems to egalitarian ends, but that actually-existing decentralization programs were often created by institutionalized political elites, and rarely included the necessary resources to facilitate true local control.  In their perspective, the Local School Councils (LSCs) that had arisen midway through Washington’s mayoralty represented a potential avenue for progressive school reform. Hal Baron objected to Lewis and Nakagawa’s specific strategic prescriptions, arguing to Dr. Lewis that school reform in Chicago was, by necessity, predicated on progressives’ capture of key centers of urban power.  Both individuals agreed that “top-down” and “bottom-up” approaches were necessary components of a political strategy for education reform. Their exchange was about the precise strategic approach to take. The baseline values shared between members of the Poker Club enabled this and similar discussions: Its members were dedicated to the project of securing resources and local political control on behalf of the urban poor, but its members often discussed and debated the strategy by which to attain this outcome, discussions that were predicated on their shared values.

The Poker Club also served as a temperature check for Hal Baron.  Throughout the 1990s, Dr. Baron paid close attention to the changes in liberal political culture that were playing out under the Clinton Administration.  Referencing his “liberal friends,” Dr. Baron complained in written letters that liberals were forgetting to place local contexts within a broader political economy  when developing policy ideas. Other members of the Poker Club recognized that Dr. Baron probably came from a more Marxist perspective than they did (Interviews with John McKnight and Dan Lewis).  

However, the Poker Club reflected Dr. Baron’s fundamental values regarding the importance of what he often referred to as “mutuality:” The ability to co-construct community institutions, and to be able to rely on others in times of need.

Special thanks to John McKnight and Dan Lewis, lifetime friends of Hal Baron, for speaking with the Hal Baron Project about the Poker Club.

Chicago Maroon Vignette

Vignette By: Donald Planey

Later in life, Dr. Baron would sometimes allude to his socialist roots, dating from his association with the Labor Youth League in the 1950s.  But during his time as a PhD student at the University of Chicago, he wrote pieces published in the Chicago Maroon on socialist organizing, anti-imperialism, urban racial segregation, and the purges of left-wing intellectuals occurring across the U.S.  While the University of Chicago had a history of censoring dissident academics, it also resisted the extremes of the red scare.  The student newspaper, the Chicago Maroon, served as an avenue for Baron to express his convictions.

Dr. Baron did editing work for the Chicago Maroon while serving as a public voice for the Labor Youth League, a student-oriented spinoff of the American Communist Party.  Eventually, Baron would leave the LYL, citing their unwillingness to focus on fighting racial segregation in Chicago’s education system as a major cause of his break.  But while at the University of Chicago, he identified with the LYL enough to write for the Chicago Maroon on their behalf.  In one instance, Baron wrote a letter to the paper that was meant to serve as a public response to a debate challenge from the Socialist Youth League, a Trotskyist counterpart to the LYL.  The SYL had declared that with the failures of Stalin and the Soviet Union, as well as the challenge of the red scare, socialists needed to find a new direction.  Speaking on behalf of the LYL, Baron agreed with the SYL’s criticisms of the Soviet Union, but insisted on public debate on crucial social issues of the day as the first step forwards for a possible reinvention of socialist politics.

In a letter dating from 1979, Baron described himself as a product of the Popular Front[1]: The Depression-era moment when the American Communist Party successfully opened up and initiated successful organizing projects, supporting the New Deal while advocating for peaceful engagement between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.  But from an early date, Baron showed that he was no orthodox communist.  One of his first major organizing projects was the push for student co-op housing in Hyde Park, marking the earliest evidence of his interest in promoting local self-governance in U.S. cities.

According to Dr. Lou Turner’s interviews with Dr. Baron, Paul Robeson was a crucial inspiration throughout his life, representing another aspects of his intellectual roots in postwar socialism.  At multiple points throughout the 1950s, Dr. Baron emphasized the corrosive effects of McCarthyism on the U.S.’s ability to engage in public discussion of foreign policy and domestic social issues.  In one shockingly prescient article in the Chicago Maroon in 1954, Baron warned of the U.S.’s growing involvement in “Indochina” (Vietnam) as proof that the U.S. was losing the ability to imagine foreign policy outside the framework of military intervention.

While studying at Amherst College, Dr. Baron made lifelong friends with Amon Nikoi.  This friendship would open Baron to the subject of anti-colonial liberation and the relationship between autonomy and development.  Dr. Baron continued to correspond with Amon Nikoi as late as 1995.

Baron also served as a delivery manager for the Chicago Maroon, perhaps providing him with early “entrepreneurial” experience, as he would later phrase his approach to organizing.  In one of his first significant published writings, he reviewed an early collection of the Austrian School’s developing approach to economic history in the paper.  He strongly objected to its cartoonish portrayal of the Marxian critique of capital, noticing from an early point many of the discursive techniques neoliberal academics used to promote their ideas, such as avoiding empirically-testable hypotheses in favor of litigating axiomatic principles.

In his student co-op housing work, he helped to draft a proposal for co-op housing units for submission to the University of Chicago administration.  Other details about this project are currently unavailable to the Hal Baron Project.  Baron also gave speeches on the challenge of racial segregation that were advertised in the Chicago Maroon, but additional details on the kind of audience these talks drew in, or their impact, are unknown to us.

Baron’s appearances in the Chicago Maroon taper off after the 1950s, around the time he completed his dissertation.  His final appearance in the Chicago Maroon came in 1968, in a promotion for an event meant to bring Chicago’s religious leaders into conversation with the emerging Black Power movement.

[1] Muhammad Ahmad-Correspondence, Hal Baron, 1980-1982. 1980-1982. The Papers of Muhammad Ahmad (Max Sanford). Personal Papers Collection of Muhammad Ahmad. Archives Unbound. Web. 16 Nov. Gale Document Number SC5003272048.