James Thindwa, a former Crossroads Board member and longtime Chicagoan, died of cancer in January 2020. James had a passionate commitment to social justice and an abiding belief in the power of ordinary people to change the world. Born in Harare Zimbabwe and raised as well in Blantyre Malawi, James moved to the United States in 1974 to attend Berea College in Kentucky. There he began his commitment, as an African immigrant, toward forging solidarity with African American struggles. Upon earning an MA from Miami University, and briefly considering a career in academia—and wisely rejecting it—James began his beloved work as a community organizer. Spanning issues from climate justice to racial justice and the right of workers to unionize, James’ incredible organizing skills touched countless people and communities. The staff director of Citizen Action Coalition of Indiana, Ohio Citizen Action and Metro Seniors in Action in Chicago, he also served for many years as executive director of Chicago Jobs With Justice, where he fought in numerous campaigns, most memorably in the fight for a municipal living wage ordinance. His work with JwJ was featured on a Bill Moyers show in 2009, of which James was very proud.
He spent his last years working for the American Federation of Teachers, initially in making unprecedented strides in organizing charter school teachers in Chicago and then in the union’s efforts nationally to strengthen relationships with parents and community organizations. A lifelong champion of human rights, James fought in numerous struggles, including the anti-apartheid movement, immigrant rights movement, antiwar movement, and many campaigns for racial justice. He was a firm believer in the responsibility of the government to tax the rich, defend the rights of workers, provide free health care for all, and robust support for the elderly. James refused the lure of cynicism and despair his whole life. He instilled in so many young organizers a fervent belief in the power of personal and social transformation.
The James Thindwa Grassroots Organizing Fund will disburse annual grants to organizations or activists who engage the critically important issues that drove and inspired James. Every fall for the duration of the fund, Crossroads will host a Thindwa Symposium, which will allow recent grantees and the donor community, activists, and intellectuals to delve into the issues and intersections that the grantees’ work embraces. More intimate than Seeds of Change, the symposium will be an opportunity to engage with each other in the robust and spirited fashion that James prized.
In addition to his multifaceted skills as an organizer, James was also a trenchant analyst of current events. His astute political and social analysis can be gleaned in these excerpts from columns and essays he wrote for In These Times magazine.