Thursday, November 28, 2013

James Eterno Tribute to Gene Prisco

Gene Prisco's activism proves that you can make a difference in the world by living up to your ideals. Our condolences go to Loretta and the entire family... James Eterno
James posted this at the ICE blog. He makes the important point that Gene and Loretta were an activist couple -- that activism was built into the fabric of their daily lives. Was there anyone on Staten Island who did not know them or of them? We rarely said "Gene" or "Loretta" - it was always "Gene 'n Loretta."

The loss of Paul Baizerman just about 2 years ago and now, Gene Prisco, is enormous for our small core of over 40-year education activists who always have had a rather unique point of view of work in and out of the union. One thing that tied us together was the fundamental belief in local - neighborhood - organizing as a way to build a movement. The uniting of parents and teachers and in the 70s we really tried to do that kind of work. Caucuses within the UFT don't really do that and I believe that is a root cause of their lack of traction. In fact ICE never did that because many of the leaders had already retired and no longer had a base in the schools. And ICE never attracted enough new recruits to make that happen.

Gene and Loretta were not very active in MORE but when ICE had to decide whether to basically end its existence as a caucus and enter into a new venture with groups and individuals whose political points of view we did not always agree with, they were both optimistic that over the long term consensus could be built.

This is an opportunity to point out that over the time we have been working together - in Another View in District 14, The Coalition of NYC School Workers (in the 70s) and the Independent Community of Educators (the past 10 years), we have ALWAYS been a consensus group -- meaning everyone had to agree before we moved forward -- no voting unless in the most extreme conditions -- and I can remember only 2 times we did vote and both turned into disasters.

I know, I know, that in essence opens us up to the filibuster. But we have always worked with reasonable people.

Now that is not the most optimal way to get things done and ICE was often stuck -- and we have tried to learn the lessons of what worked and didn't -- but we have pushed consistently that MORE be as consensus as feasible. We have always believed that democracy is not a matter of majority vote but of talking to each other to search for points of agreement with voting as a last resort. Gene Prisco had that fundamental view of what democracy is all about.


I was aware that he was not well but I am still stunned by the passing of a founding member of ICE: Gene Prisco.  Tributes are starting to pour in.  Please read the Staten Island Advance obituary or the brief introduction to the Advance piece over at Ed Notes from Norm Scott. We are also reprinting in its entirety the message from the Democratic Party of Staten Island (see below).
Gene was truly a wonderful human being. My wife Camille and I both feel honored that we were able to know him and his wife Loretta.  What a truly inspiring couple who are kind of role models to us on how to be a politically active family.

When people like me would be rambling on at ICE meetings about some great injustice by Randi Weingarten or Bloomberg or anyone else, Gene would respond by acknowledging in no uncertain terms that the job of a union was primarily to protect its members and that the UFT should be criticized if they don't live up to their main mission. What was unique about Gene is he could make these points in a way that would make us roll over laughing. 

He had an amazing sense of humor and no matter how bad the conditions in the schools have worsened for teachers, his outlook at ICE meetings remained optimistic that we could make our issues (for example lower class sizes) part of the union's agenda. 

Gene and Loretta were in attendance regularly to support Jeff Kaufman, Barbara Kaplan Halper and me when we were on the UFT Executive Board. He knew that the UFT had the potential to be a positive force to make the education system a better place for teachers, parents and students.  He felt the same way about the promise of the Democratic Party. That is why he ran for Congress in 1998.

My wife is reminding me of Gene's commitment to assisting African refugees.  Some of these refugees were kids who were involved in war at very young ages. Gene took enormous pride in his commitment to the African Refuge organization.  Nothing made him happier than helping people get a better life.

Gene Prisco's activism proves that you can make a difference in the world by living up to your ideals. Our condolences go to Loretta and the entire family.

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