The Poker Club

Hal was an early member of "The Poker Club," Chicago's informal gathering of anti-poverty intellectuals. (Story written by Donald Planey)

The Poker Club

Throughout his life, Dr. Baron maintained a complicated relationship with academia. He wanted his writings to be scholarly and he appreciated the pedagogical and investigative aspects of academic life. However, he always insisted that his “project” was not ultimately academic. He always sought for his work, whether in research, fundraising, networking or policymaking, to be directly relevant to on-the-ground anti-racist, progressive, and community development projects. Among Chicago civil rights veterans, he was not alone in shirking the limitations of the Ivy Tower in this regard.

After his time as research director of the Chicago Urban League, Dr. Baron initiated a loose affiliation with Northwestern University’s Center for Urban Affairs (CUA) and took on a teaching position at Associated College of the Midwest (ACM), circa 1971. Both the ACM and the CUA were populated with Chicago civil rights veterans, and many of them shared Dr. Baron’s “one foot in, one foot out” stance towards the academic world. Associated Colleges of the Midwest was founded by a consortium of Chicago-area colleges looking for a way to keep the new generation of rebellious students- the generation that had shut down campuses across the United States in protest of the Vietnam War- from dropping out of the college system. In order to shepherd these students, the ACM drew from Chicago’s already-existing tradition of academic-activist troublemakers, with the city’s network of religious progressives serving as a model. One of ACM’s early associates, John McKnight, was frequently brought in to speak to students, his authority entirely deriving from his career as an activist, not any academic credentials. Having both composed an important dissertation in the field of economic history and served as the key researcher for Chicago’s civil rights movement, Baron shared a rebellious, yet practical approach to urban politics with his ACM colleagues.

Out of the post-Civil Rights era of Chicago and the ACM urban studies program sprang the “Poker Club,” an informal, yet important periodic gathering of many of Chicago’s anti-poverty activists. After beginning in the early 1970s, the Poker Club would continue for decades as an important institution within the city’s progressive community. The Poker Club facilitated information exchange, social networking, and the strengthening of solidarity between community organizers, who otherwise tended to clash with mainstream academic and political institutions. First-generation Poker Club regulars were Stanley Hallett, John Fish, John McKnight, and of course, Hal Baron himself.

From the 1970s onwards, the Poker Club would regularly meet to play cards, but camping trips and hikes were also common activities. While the Poker Club was frequently host to debates about policy and politics, the ultimate point was conviviality. While the members came from a wide variety of walks of life- Academics, lawyers, labor leaders, and politicians would drop by- the unifying commitment across the Poker Club was community organizing in Chicago’s impoverished neighborhoods. Of all the attendees, Hal Baron took Poker the most seriously. While there was always a core group of attendees, people would bring family and friends to poker games, serving to expand attendees’ networks.

The Poker Club would continue into later generations, with Jody Kretzmann and DanLewis being two important second-generation members. For Hal Baron’s work, the Poker Club was important for spreading the word about EcoViva’s mission in El Salvador among the stateside progressive community. As two separate Poker Club members attested, Baron took any opportunity he could to “brief” his fellow activists on EcoViva’s work. Dr. Baron also recognized that the Poker Club network was a source for expertise on the dynamics of poverty, and the challenges for poverty remediation in urban America. In developing his overarching theorization of civil society, he drew from insights developed by Chicago’s anti-poverty activists about welfare bureaucracy and the urban poor. When Dr. Baron was brought into the Harold Washington mayoral administration, it came as something of a surprise to the Poker Club. They were used to operating outside the halls of urban political power, and now one of their own was on the inside. However, this was a major aspect of Dr. Baron’s role within the Washington mayoralty, where he could work to ensure that neighborhood groups and anti-poverty advocates could petition the Washington mayoralty for support.

One of the benefits of the Poker Club was that it could serve as a space for lively discussions about grassroots political strategy. Dan Lewis recalls one such dialog with Hal Baron in the mid-1990s, following the 1995 publication of Dan Lewis and Kathryn Nakagawa’s Race and Educational Reform in the American Metropolis, a monograph about urban school decentralization in U.S. cities. The authors’ core argument was that school governance decentralization had the potential to meaningfully reform urban education systems to egalitarian ends, but that actually-existing decentralization programs were often created by institutionalized political elites, and rarely included the necessary resources to facilitate true local control. In their perspective, the Local School Councils (LSCs) that had arisen midway through Washington’s mayoralty represented a potential avenue for progressive school reform. Hal Baron objected to Lewis and Nakagawa’s specific strategic prescriptions, arguing to Dr. Lewis that school reform in Chicago was, by necessity, predicated on progressives’ capture of key centers of urban power. Both individuals agreed that “top-down” and “bottom-up” approaches were necessary components of a political strategy for education reform. Their exchange was about the precise strategic approach to take. The baseline values shared between members of the Poker Club enabled this and similar discussions: Its members were dedicated to the project of securing resources and local political control on behalf of the urban poor, but its members often discussed and debated the strategy by which to attain this outcome, discussions that were predicated on their shared values.

The Poker Club also served as a temperature check for Hal Baron. Throughout the 1990s, Dr. Baron paid close attention to the changes in liberal political culture that were playing out under the Clinton Administration. Referencing his “liberal friends,” Dr. Baron complained in written letters that liberals were forgetting to place local contexts within a broader political economy when developing policy ideas. Other members of the Poker Club recognized that Dr. Baron probably came from a more Marxist perspective than they did.

However, the Poker Club reflected Dr. Baron’s fundamental values regarding the importance of what he often referred to as “mutuality:” The ability to co-construct community institutions, and to be able to rely on others in times of need.

Special thanks to John McKnight and Dan Lewis, lifetime friends of Hal Baron, for speaking with the Hal Baron Project about the Poker Club.

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  1. Interview with Lou Turner.
  2. John McKnight (housing activist for the CCCO), in discussion with the author, December, 2019.
  3. Interview with Dan Lewis.
  4. McKnight, "Interview," 2019.
  5. McKnight, "Interview," 2019.
  6. William Upski Wimsatt's "Anonymous Benefactor," Chicago Reader, March 26,1998. represents an interview with Hallitt on his life and work in Chicago. Available Online.
  7. See Bob Goldsborough's "John Hall Fish, 1932-2014, Urban Activist, Dies," Chicago Tribune, June 20, 2014. Available Online.
  8. "John McKnight," Asset-Based Community Development Institute, accessed February 3rd, 2022. Available Online.
  9. Interview with Dan Lewis.
  10. "John (Jody) Kretzmann," Asset-Based Community Development Institute, accessed February 3rd, 2022. Available Online.
  11. "Dan Lewis, Faculty Profile,"Northwestern University, accessed February 3rd, 2022. Available Online.
  12. McKnight and Dan Lewis interviews.
  13. McKnight Lewis interviews.
  14. McKnight, "Interview," 2019.
  15. John A. Lewis and Kathryn Nakagawa's Race and Educational Reform in the American Metropolis: A Study of School Decentralization. Suny Press: New York, 1994.
  16. McKnight and Lewis interviews.