News Column

Quiet Man With A Vision

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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."

Although defense contractors were supposed to be equal-opportunity employers, they limited their minority hiring to African Americans. Finally, Mr. Morales made headway with Rockwell International, followed quickly by McDonnell Douglas and Lockheed. The momentum led to agreements with Kraft (still a MAOF supporter), utility companies, and other corporate giants.

William Izabal, director of the Division of People at Boeing North America and a long-time MAOF board member, calls Mr. Morales "the Silver Fox." The nickname draws from two facts: his hair had silver streaks even in youth, and "whenever he went after money, he always ended up with it," jokes Mr. Izabal.

By his own account, Mr. Morales pioneered Hispanic job development because it offered the best chance for consensus-building. "Mexican Americans had a hard time getting together because they couldn't agree what the issue was," he recalls. "But everybody wants a job and better earning power. So I found that was the easiest issue to use to attract people with differing philosophies. …It was the most non-debatable issue."

More than 40 years after the founding of the MAOF, the challenges of fighting stereotypes and gaining access to the workplace persist. "The desire for a better job, no doubt, is [still] highest on the chart," Mr. Morales opines. "I think the struggle now is not just to get entry-level jobs. …Here is this vast community Mexican Americans are 66 percent of the Latino population but in the higher ranks [of Corporate America], we aren't there yet."

In his autobiography "Dionicio Morales: A Life in Two Cultures" ($17.95, Arte Publico Press), Mr. Morales recounts how he patterned the MAOF after the Jewish League, a comprehensive human-services organization. Today, the MAOF still works in job training, but 80 percent of its $59.5 million budget goes to childcare programs that enable parents to work.

Carlos Viramontes, an Anheuser-Busch manager who has served 16 years on the MAOF board, credits the MAOF's success to the presence of Corporate America on its board. Many organizations seek corporate executives merely for fund-raising, but at MAOF, the managerial expertise has con-tributed more, since most of the money still comes from government sources, Mr. Viramontes says.

Mr. Izabal of Boeing says Mr. Morales "is one of the few people leading a nonprofit who recognizes the need to have Corporate America active on the board. Most organizations have people who only want their name on a list."

Mr. Morales and his generation of community advocates have left a huge footprint on U.S. Hispanic economic development one that can't be measured entirely in dollars. Powerful Hispanics who cite him as an influence in their lives include Maria Contreras-Sweet, California's Secretary of Business, Transportation & Housing; Rudy Beserra, vice-president of Latino Affairs at Coca-Cola; and Antonio Villaraigoza, former Speaker of the California Assembly.

For admirers, his soft-spoken style captures the essence of public service. Whether attending a lavish state dinner in Mexico City or meeting with welfare recipients in Los Angeles, Mr. Morales "doesn't put on airs," comments Mr. Viramontes. At fund-raising banquets, "he looks as humble as the cleaning people, but he's just as comfortable shaking hands with the president of the United States." In fact, he has counseled presidents on Mexican-American issues since the Johnson administration.

"He calls us disciples, because we have the same passion to help people that he had years ago," says Mr. Castro, who has worked with him for nearly 20 years. "We just pick up the pieces and move forward…. [But] I don't compare myself to Dionicio."

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