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Focus Hope's Eleanor Josaitis Refused To Be A Spectator

August 13, 2011

Detroit just buried a great leader.  

You may have never heard of Focus: HOPE co-founder Eleanor Josaitis.  But for more than four decades this 79-year-old visionary and unstoppable force has taken multiple American presidents, members of Congress, Fortune 500 executives and community activists by the hand (literally!) and inspired them to care more, to give more and to do more  to “overcome racism, poverty and injustice.”  

 The Motor City’s Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, which seats 1500, was filled to capacity with admirers from every generation, gender, race and walk of life.  We came to celebrate a life well-lived and to commit to carry on her work of providing training for good-paying jobs and national food programs and support services for families and senior citizens in need.  “We Shall Overcome” and “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine,” were the closing processionals.  

To understand the courage and tenacity of Eleanor Josaitis, as well as the thousands of lives she touched and the legacy she leaves, you have to think back to 1968.   Forty-four years ago, in the wake of the 1967 Detroit riots -- some of the worst urban uprisings in American history -- droves of stunned and terrified Motown residents  turned their backs on a community they once called home and fled to the suburbs. 

Eleanor Josaitis and her husband, Don, the parents of five young children, did exactly the opposite.  They moved from suburban Taylor into the Motor City, after Josaitis and close family friend, Father William Cunningham, “. . . walked the streets of Detroit the day after the riots ended and decided they had to do something," according to her obituary, "to get at the root of the problems that caused the tragedy. ” 

 Together, Josaitis and Father Cunningham, co-founded Focus: HOPE in March 1968, with a Mission Statement that is as relevant and compelling today as it was then:  “Recognizing the dignity and beauty of every person, we pledge intelligent and practical action to overcome racism, poverty and injustice.  And to build a metropolitan community where all people live in freedom, harmony, trust and affection.  Black and white, yellow, brown and red from Detroit and its suburbs of every economic status, national original and religious persuasion we join in this covenant.” 

Hate letters, fire bombs and resistance only strengthened their resolve.  Over the years,  Focus: HOPE rose to national prominence as an organization that knows how “to make a difference in the inner city.” 

Josaitis would be the first to say that her work is not done here in Detroit. But as I listen to the stories about her passion for protecting and respecting the dignity of every individual she encountered, I can’t help but think about the agony in England these days of astonished Brits who are reeling from last week’s unanticipated uprisings.  When I watch the scenes of London and other cities burning, looters rioting and listen to Britain’s political leaders arguing over the correct response, I can’t help but reflect on how Eleanor Josaitis responded, decades ago, to eerily similar scenes.  She often said, “There’s no greater way to eliminate racism and poverty than to see that people have education, skills, jobs and opportunities in life.”

As Michigan’s U.S. Senator Carl Levin told the mourners, “Eleanor Josaitis could not abide being a spectator." And she never stopped asking herself the question, “What should I do about this?”  Becoming a leader, in my book, begins with making the giant leap from thinking, “It’s all about me,” to discovering that "It’s all about we.” 

Detroiter Eleanor Josaitis understood better than anyone I’ve ever known that we are all in this together. 


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