Following a lifetime of public service, research, and theoretical investigation of modern race relations, Baron became involved in economic and ecological development of base communities in Central America. He served as Chair of the Board of Directors of EcoViva, a Central American organization engaged in environmental, economic development and social justice work, principally in El Salvador, involving such U.S. progressives as Jeff Haas, co-founder of the People’s Law Office, in Chicago, and anti-globalization theorist Naomi Klein.
The following is an email Mary LaPorte wrote to us on her experiences working with Hal (reproduced with permission).
I first met Hal in the early 1980s, when Hal was serving as the Policy Director for Mayor Harold Washington. As a board member of the Chicago League of Women Voters I had a portfolio concerning youth employment and I joined a Chicago working group that Hal had organized.
Through this work I was able to interest Hal in Jane Addams Resource Corporation (JARC), a spin off of Jane Addams Center/Hull House Association. Founded in 1985, I worked with leaders from Jane Addams Center and community volunteers to create this organization with core mission of education and community economic development, a charge fundamentally different from the social welfare mission of Hull House.
I was a new Executive Director and understood that board members would be critical to building a sustainable organization. Well, how fortunate everyone connected to JARC was that Hal joined the board! He helped us all in those early years to more finely articulate our mission and define a strategic path forward. I learned about politics, Chicago history, and how a community organization could navigate the complex policy environment of the city and the state. Above all, I learned about people and power and I learned from the best. Hal remained on the board of JARC for many years, including serving as president.
In 1994 I left JARC and moved to Cleveland. We kept in touch over the next 17 years. Hal and staff members from JARC came to visit and observe the skills training program I directed and we met several times in Chicago. In addition to catching up on his Chicago endeavors, I began to hear about El Salvador, a charismatic priest named Chencho, and the compelling and difficult post war dynamics in that country.
I had gravitated to working in a small international development organization International Partners in Mission (IPM) and I followed the work of the Foundation for Self Sufficiency in Central America (FSSCA), the group Hal and Chenco founded along with the local community. I realized that it was a model North-South partnership, and I made it a point to go visit them with an IPM delegation.
I began another transition in 2009 as I left my job and prepared to move to Montana. The phone rang one day and I heard a familiar voice. “Mary you owe me.” Yup, it was Hal in his finest “Chicago Hustler” mode!
He asked to join the board of FSSCA, and it has been the honor of my life. Through my board work with Hal for the next 8 years, I learned of the history of the campesino communities we worked with, and the importance of trusting and following their wisdom. I came to know that Hal was clearly the intellectual leader of the organization, renamed EcoViva in 2010.
The staff and board leaders of EcoViva relied on Hal’s strategic and political sense, his keen interest, and above all his ability to sort out authenticity from falsehood. He articulated in many different ways that our directive as a board was to “follow the strategic plan of our partners.” This deep sense of belief and commitment in our Central American Partners was manifested in the love I witnessed whenever “Harold” was in his beloved Cuidad Romero.
I also realized that Paula Baron had been an integral decision maker and leader of EcoViva and other community initiatives throughout Central America through their Communitas Foundation. Their work together was an inspiration.
Hal’s legacy lives on. At an EcoViva benefit in Oakland just a few days ago, we honored three women community leaders from El Salvador and Honduras with the “Hal Baron Spirit of the Mangroves” Award. In 2018 I traveled to Honduras and the headquarters of Red Comal, another social movement that Hal and Communitas were deeply connected to. I felt proud to see a beautiful conference room set in a lovely mountain pine forest, named The Hal Baron Salon.
Like so many people, Hal deeply touched my life. Since his passing in 2017, I have dedicated my EcoViva work to Hal and the lessons he taught me."