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Belief in community kept Josaitis going strong

(Editor's note: The below retrospective on Eleanor Josaitis, co-founder of Focus: HOPE in Detroit, was originally published in the December 2004 edition of Mott Mosaic, a Mott Foundation news magazine. Josaitis died Aug. 9, 2011.)

For Eleanor Josaitis, the key to overcoming such social ills as racism, poverty and injustice can be as simple as discovering a shared fondness for peanut butter.

Josaitis is co-founder and CEO of Focus: HOPE, a civil and human rights organization — and longtime Mott grantee with more than $10 million in support since 1981 — in Detroit. For more than 35 years, Focus: HOPE has sought to address those issues by supporting services and public policies that help low-income and underserved families meet their basic needs, gain education and job training and enter the economic mainstream.

The organization also conducts a year-round "pen pal" initiative to strengthen communication and cultural understanding between third-grade students from Detroit's inner city and its suburbs.

While attending a recent event that brought together nearly 400 of those children, Josaitis overheard one young boy exclaim to another, "You like peanut butter? I love peanut butter!"

That exchange reminded Josaitis of a basic, but often neglected, step in rebuilding communities — listening to one another.

"If we just sit down and honestly share our needs, hopes and fears, then we'll find out just how much we have in common — the desire to be understood, appreciated and safe," she said.

The personal journey that inspired such insight for Josaitis and launched her passionate career on issues of racism and social injustice began one afternoon in 1962 when, as a young, suburban mother of five, she was confronted with their impact.

She was watching a televised documentary about Nazi war crimes committed during World War II when the program was interrupted by news coverage of a civil rights march in Mississippi. The footage included vivid images of police officers using electric cattle prods and fire hoses on the marchers.

Josaitis was overwhelmed by what she saw.

"I cried my eyes out and kept asking myself what I would have done in both of those situations," she said four decades later. "Would I have spoken out against what was happening? Would I have pretended that I didn't see anything? It changed me immediately."

Josaitis turned a critical eye on the plight of Detroit's impoverished neighborhoods. She and her parish priest, the Rev. William Cunningham, began exploring ways to close the racial divide that separated many residents. They soon hit upon the idea of a food program to alleviate malnutrition.

"We knew hunger was a reality for these families," Josaitis said. "We also knew that filling that hunger was an important first step to doing something about the other problems they faced."

With a program and a mission whose importance was affirmed by the 1967 riots in Detroit, Josaitis and Cunningham formally launched Focus: HOPE March 8, 1968.

Josaitis decided soon afterward that if she was going to help create genuine change in Detroit, her family needed to become a living part of it. So she and her husband packed up their household and moved to a racially integrated Detroit neighborhood.

"A lot of people thought I had lost my mind to leave the suburbs, but I knew it was the right thing to do," Josaitis said. "How could I expect people of different races to live together and understand each other if I wasn't willing to do it myself?"

Members of her family became alarmed at Josaitis' growing activism. Her mother, fearing for the safety of her grandchildren, tried to gain legal custody of them. Another relative, embarrassed by Josaitis' vocal support of racial integration, insisted that she should use her maiden name in public.

Josaitis notes that in the years that followed, she and other Focus: HOPE staff became "about as popular as the plague" with several local business leaders when the organization took a vocal and aggressive stand against race- and gender-based discrimination in the workplace.

However, like her mother and other family members, many of these leaders eventually came to support and even embrace the mission and work of Focus: HOPE. Such confrontations also helped reaffirm for Josaitis that her own actions were both necessary and right.

"They really tested me to see if I knew what I was doing and if the passion was there," she said. "I realized that it was OK to stand out and say the things that people didn't want to hear, because they were things that needed to be said. It made me a stronger person."

Josaitis has grown personally and professionally in several important ways over the years. She says she learned to become creative when encountering "stubborn" social and political obstacles, a lesson from Michigan's U.S. Sen. Phil Hart, who died in 1976. She came to see how instrumental a diverse, talented and dedicated staff is to identifying new ways to solve longstanding problems. And she found she could rely on her own inner strength and resolve when, as a woman, her position as a community leader — and her ability to take the helm of Focus: HOPE following Cunningham's death in 1997 — was called into question by critics.

Like Josaitis, Focus: HOPE and its participants have also continued to grow. The organization's Machinist Training Institute (MTI), launched in 1981, has helped more than 3,000 people prepare for living-wage careers in manufacturing, information technology and manufacturing engineering, while its Center for Advanced Technologies — in partnership with local universities — offers promising MTI graduates the chance to earn a college degree in manufacturing engineering and technology.

Meanwhile, the food program that started it all now serves more than 43,000 Detroit-area women, children and seniors monthly, and has been replicated in 32 states.

And perhaps most importantly, says Josaitis, Focus: HOPE continues to instill a strong sense of personal worth and responsibility among its clients.

Her unwavering belief in the power and potential of all individuals keeps Josaitis excited about the future of the organization, the Detroit community and the country.

Indeed, while she is concerned that more attention must be paid to the quality and effectiveness of the nation's workforce development system, she believes that much progress has been made. She also points to the public dialogue taking place on issues of racism and injustice after years of "people wanting to keep their heads in the sand and pretend that the problems didn't exist."

Today, the 72-year-old former housewife holds 11 honorary doctorate degrees, serves on several advisory boards and committees and has received numerous awards for her contributions as an advocate for the poor and a leader for her community.

And while a succession plan for the leadership of Focus: HOPE is in place, Josaitis has no immediate plans to retire.

"I have 7,000 stories tucked in my heart of people who have been successful with the help of Focus: HOPE," she said. "That's what keeps me motivated and going every day — knowing that we're making a difference in this world. I know it."

(Note: This report is provided as a service to our readers and a service to the group or individual mentioned in the release. Usually, only minor editing is done. The group or individual is responsible for all information provided.)

 

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