Remembering Jon Kest and Jessie Streich-Kest

Our thoughts go out to the family of Jon Kest, community organizer extraordinaire and longtime Coalition ally, and his daughter Jessie Streich-Kest, a teacher and activist who died during Hurricane Sandy.

Jon Kest was, simply put, the premier NYC community organizer of his generation. He led numerous campaigns and struggles on behalf of low-wage workers, poor communities, and students. As a leader of New York ACORN and its successor organization, New York Communities for Change, Jon also played a key role in many affordable housing campaigns and was an invaluable ally of Coalition for the Homeless and countless other groups. There is no way to sum up Jon’s many remarkable accomplishments, but the remarks by labor leader Bob Master, copied at the end of this post, are a good start.

Jon’s too-soon passing, after a battle with cancer, would be awful enough – but is even more tragic given the shocking death of his beloved daughter, Jessie, who was killed only weeks ago alongside a friend beneath a fallen tree during Sandy. Jessie was a teacher and animal-rights activist, and several years ago we were fortunate enough to benefit from her work as an intern at the Coalition.

Our thoughts go out to Fran Streich, Jake Streich-Kest, and all of Jon and Jessie’s family and friends. Though the struggle continues, their work on behalf of low-income and working class New Yorkers – Jon’s over decades, Jessie’s just beginning – has made our city a more just, more decent place.

Tribute to Jon Kest

By Bob Master, Co-Chair, Working Families Party, Political Director, CWA District 1, and long-time friend of Jon’s

Remarks delivered at the New York Communities for Change Gala on November 29, 2012 (a week before Jon’s passing)

It is truly an honor to have the opportunity to say a few words about our dear friend and brother, Jon Kest.

The truth is, it’s a bit surprising that anyone is up here talking about Jon at an event organized by Jon. I’m sure if it were entirely up to him, there’d be no public mention tonight of his accomplishments, his contributions, or his central role in all the work celebrated here—let alone his lifelong commitment to organizing poor and working people, or his brilliance as an organizer and a leader.

That’s just how he is. Always content to be the mastermind behind the scenes, the unnamed architect of the winning strategy, the organizer watching from the back of the room—taking a few illegible notes in that ubiquitous notebook of his (whatever became of all those notebooks, anyway?).

Who in this room has not called Jon at one time or another—or a hundred times—to get advice on how confrontational or accommodating to be at a critical moment in an issue campaign, how to navigate the competing interests of elected officials who might determine its fate, or deciding what message to use to win an electoral campaign? Who among us does not count him as the go-to person when we’re in the toughest spot?

Jon has never been one for accolades, or to give public speeches. For his entire adult life, literally for over three and a half decades, he has simply been—the organizer’s organizer.

Well, tonight, as you can see, we refused to let him persuade us once again to remain in the shadows. And tonight is the perfect night to give Jon, at long last, his proper due.

Because ALL of the struggles you have heard about tonight, all of the relationships that are reflected in tonight’s roster of speakers and honorees, reflect the creativity, commitment and organizing genius of Jon Kest. Yes, these few minutes are a direct tribute to Jon—but in truth, all the work that has been featured tonight is a tribute to Jon.

For the past 30 years in New York City, no matter what the issue, Jon Kest has been at the center of almost every battle that mattered to the lives of this city’s millions of poor and working people. Whether it was leading squatting campaigns to win affordable housing, winning a referendum to drive Edison Schools—one of the earliest privatizers—out of New York, winning Living Wage and minimum wage increases, fighting to ensure that New York developers must provide affordable housing as the price of building in the city, pressuring banks to end their practice of ripping off low income people by peddling predatory loans, bridging the gap between Occupiers and labor unions and community organizations and now finally, taking on the enormous challenge of organizing hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers into unions—Jon was at the center of it.

And there is another major political achievement of which Jon was the original author, though few knew this at the time and even fewer remember. The creation of the Working Families Party was Jon’s idea—he convened the very first discussions that led to the formation of the WFP, was present for every important discussion and decision that the Party has made over the last 15 years, and has been a rock-solid ally through thick and thin.

No matter who was Mayor – Koch or Dinkins or Guiliani or Bloomberg – Jon has been fearless. Opinions may differ on which Mayor disliked ACORN and Brother Kest the most, but being liked was never a priority for Jon (good thing, too). What each Mayor understood and understands still is that ACORN and now NYCC and Brother Kest were resourceful and relentless advocates for the working class and poor.

And of course that resourcefulness and relentless came with a price. A little over three years ago, ACORN was subjected to a vicious Fox News-led assault, aided and abetted by a gutless Congress, for the crime of having registered too many low income people of color to vote during the 2008 election. Foundation funders abandoned ACORN. Only a few organizations—most especially in New York, the United Federation of Teachers and Michael Mulgrew—stood by them and helped them rebuild. I watched Jon during those incredibly difficult days when it was never clear how he was going to make the next payroll. Bertha had left for Washington to run the national organization. Jon and a handful of hard core staff had to rebuild almost from scratch.

Look around. See how far they’ve come. New York Communities for Change, ACORN’s successor, is alive and well, and has joined with the Service Employees and the Retail Workers and United New York and Make the Road to mount this city’s most important organizing drives in as long as anyone can remember.

None of it would have happened without Jon.

I can’t recall a big speech he made. I can’t recall an admiring profile in any newspaper. I don’t remember any awards ceremonies where somebody important gave him a plaque.

It was just Jon—tireless hard work, incessant hours on the phone, more text messages and emails than anyone could count, hours upon hours of meetings, a creative genius with a wry and frequently off-color sense of humor and an unwavering commitment to equality and justice, figuring out how to rebuild, how to move forward, how to carry the struggle onwards.

Tonight Jon, our dear friend and brother, you are no longer in the shadows. You are in the spotlight. And you are in our hearts. And we thank you for everything you’ve done.

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