•Click here to view a historical photo slideshow of Dionicio MoralesAn early episode in the life of Dionicio Morales sums up his low-profile but persistent approach to nonprofit management. By 1962, Mr. Morales had spent two frustrating years trying to fund what would become the Mexican American Opportunity Foundation (MAOF). One afternoon he sat in a meeting while his 10 board members urged him to liquidate the organization, whose only assets were $22 in the bank and two copies of the bylaws.
But Mr. Morales had a solution. "We haven't talked to the president of the United States," he suggested.
While the skeptical board watched, he dialed the White House. A receptionist asked the nature of the call and directed him to the Mexican Embassy. He called the embassy and explained that the MAOF worked to solve employment problems for Mexican Americans. "I think that the ambassador is meeting with Vice-President Lyndon Johnson at this moment about the concerns you have expressed," the secretary said.
That bold call led to a face-to-face meeting with LBJ, and eventually to a job-development grant from the Labor Department.
Today, the MAOF is the largest specific Hispanic-serving nonprofit in the nation (see "2003 Hispanic Business Nonprofit 25" directory). But the human touch of Mr. Morales's legacy remains. "I describe him as an urban Cesar Chavez," says Martin Castro, who succeeded Mr. Morales as president of the MAOF two years ago. "Cesar wanted to bring better work conditions to Mexican-American workers in the field. Dionicio chose to work in urban America because he saw Mexican Americans had been relegated to service jobs."
It seems incredible that the same man who won million-dollar grants once fought against segregated movie theaters and organized a labor strike to raise wages from 25 cents to 35 cents per hour. "Employers could get a family of four to work for $1 an hour," remembers William Hensey Jr., a teacher and collaborator of Mr. Morales in the early days. "I was shocked that so many things were blatant violations of the law. Blatant. The authorities just wouldn't enforce the [anti-discrimination] laws."
Mr. Morales was born in Arizona two weeks after his mother crossed the border from Mexico. He grew up in the agricultural community of Moorpark, north of Los Angeles, where he got his first taste of racism and prejudice. After attending a teacher's college, he worked as a federal compliance officer with the Bracero program, where he first met the young Cesar Chavez. In the late 1940s, Mr. Morales moved to East Los Angeles and worked as a labor organizer until the MAOF took off.
"In college, I was drowned and smothered with conferences and research on our problems," Mr. Morales says. "I got the feeling talk was cheap, but action was what it was all about." During the 1950s, well-intentioned academics and advocates generated "a tremendous amount of data that ended up in the dust."
Thus Mr. Morales set out to create an organization focused on solving problems at the grass-roots level. Funding in the early days came entirely from government sources and was based on the community-organizing model of Saul Alinsky, whose book Reveille for Radicals (1946) provided what Mr. Morales calls "a blueprint for MAOF." Corporate America "slammed the door in my face, but I persisted," he says. "I went in the back door. Vice-President Johnson was honorary chairman of the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission], and he gave me his endorsement to the aerospace industries. … Then things started to happen."
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