Honoree Gary Stewart Inspires Crowd at Upton Sinclair Dinner

Gary Stewart2 (1)Tonight at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, Liberty Hill presented Gary Stewart with this year's Founders Award "for his philanthropy that embodies the spirit of Change, not Charity and whose exceptional generosity is helping to realize equality and justice for all."

The award was presented by Michele Prichard, Director, Common Agenda, at Liberty Hill, who said in her introduction that the first and most often uttered phrases she's heard from Gary are, "What can I do?", "Tell me how I can help", and "Whatever it takes, let me know."

Here's the text of his inspiring remarks upon receiving the Founders Award before a crowd of 750 very appreciative and enthusiastic people.

"So here’s how this whole thing started.

Over 20 years ago I walked in to this dingy office between a Laundromat and a barbecue joint — in this strip mall off Western Ave — to volunteer for a group that some of you might remember as Coalition 88. They were working on insurance reform — and they were trying to stop oil drilling off the coast of Santa Barbara.

And that’s when I met Michele and Larry Frank and this great group of people who were all working for positive change — and it was this near utopian experience.

No egos, no factions! And at the time I was new to all this so I thought well, of course it was that way, it's ALWAYS that way when you’re working for social change. There’s never any dysfunction or runaway egos ever! Right? You EDs and organizers out there can back me up on that.

So now here we are. Why do we really come to these dinners in the first place?To schmooze or network, support our friends, to have community, and maybe there’s even a hope that we might walk away a little inspired. At least those are the reasons I come.

But before I was in a world where I went to dinners, I got a lot of that from music. Music was my first real wake-up call. The anger of the seventies punk movement tapped in to this growing sense that… that something was unfair— that there was just something that was wrong.

Then there were other moments in music that just spelled it out for me.

Seeing Bruce Springsteen in 1984 preface “My Hometown” — a song about the decline and neglect of a city — by saying “This is your town, you need to take care of it” may sound obvious now but it was revelatory to me at the time. 

Or seeing Billy Bragg play this inspirational show at McCabe's — and telling the audience that buying the Sandinista album by the Clash wasn’t really the same as actually doing something. And that was really a bummer — I mean we’re talking about a three-record set that cost ten dollars at the time!

But those confrontational words would eventually politicize me and, more importantly, move me from rhetoric to action.

Around this time I was a just music geek working at a small record store that had just become a small record label — that some of you may know as Rhino Records.

Rhino’s founders Richard Foos and Harold Bronson created this work culture that encouraged and promoted community service and giving.

You got paid time off for volunteering: 2% of the profits went to community-based work. I’ll always be grateful Richard Foos And Harold Bronson, too, for putting their money where my mouth was. 

And I got to be a part of this culture — while having a career based entirely on my passion for music. Being a record nerd actually paid off.  How great was that?

But let’s get back to that mini-mall. Coalition 88 turned out just enough votes to pass insurance reform and stop  oil drilling — and that’s when I realized that this stuff really works! Because of that experience and so many others like it, Larry and Michele have became my political mentors.

Larry introduced me to this world of community organizing and Michele introduced me to… Liberty Hill, where I really began to understand that concept of change, not charity.

At Liberty Hill I learned about parts of the city that I’d driven past so many times — but essentially ignored — and found out that some really terrible things can happen here

Like a contractor dumping this mountain of concrete from the collapsed freeway in a residential neighborhood, ruining the quality of life for people there. Or airport taxi drivers that work 80 hours a week because they can’t make a living wage and then get threatened with losing their jobs if they complain. Or that even in enlightened L.A., lesbian, gay, and transgender students are still harassed and bullied everyday, sometimes with the approval of teachers and administrators.

Then I found out about some of the best things that can happen in this city…. because of the work of many  people in this room.

I started hearing about the flip side,  the victories that come from organizing: getting that concrete mountain out of that neighborhood, getting back wages and future income for those taxi drivers, getting a law passed that protects those students.

At one of my first Liberty Hill events  I met an organizer who said something I’ll never forget. And it altered the way I understand how change really happens —  and my role in making it happen.

He said “The partnership that comes from our work and your giving is a sacred thing.”

He was talking about how organizers feel when they’re supported — and how donors feel when they’re connected.

What I think he also meant was: It’s not just organizers like him that make things happen,  it’s also us.

Now some of us feel bad when all we can do is write a check.  But you know what? Writing a check isn’t a cop-out. It’s not a passive disconnected act. It’s part of making change happen, a key part.

The best people doing community-based work are paid, trained and experienced staff. Without checks they don’t get hired — and that work just doesn’t happen. By giving you’re connected to that work — and to this city.

Somebody who really understood this was my friend Wally Marks. Twenty years ago, Wally Marks invited me to my first Liberty Hill dinner. Wally could have lived a luxurious life but spent so much of his time — and a lot of his money —  to support causes he cared about. And he got his friends to give money too.

About ten years later, Wally was given the Founders Award. Wally was someone I aspired to be like — that I’ll always aspire to be like.

Now most of us don’t have the time to start a community-based organization like some of the recipients of the Changemaker Award that now bears Wally’s name. And very few of us will make our difference in public office or through movies, TV and music like past recipients of the Upton Sinclair award. 

But the Founders Award is an honor that we can all aspire to. And truthfully, even after this evening is over, I’ll still be working to live up to it.

Everyone here is somewhere on a path between being a first-time attendee out there and being up here.

My big hope is that some of you do end up here, encouraging others to go to meetings and fundraisers and to hold house parties —  because, really, that’s how this pyramid scheme works.

But while I am up here, I want you know what an honor  it is to receive this award. And I want to congratulate my fellow honorees.

Margarita, I‘ve known you as long as I’ve known Liberty Hill and you were a big part of so many of my best experiences. Tim, I just found out about your work six months ago when they started planning this dinner — and I’m blown away by the creativity of what you do to and, more importantly, the results that come from how you do it.

I want to thank Sarah Pillsbury for starting Liberty Hill in the first place, and Paula Litt for always showing me how mix pragmatism with idealism — without sacrificing either.

And thanks to all my friends who really extended themselves to be here tonight, financially and geographically — navigating oceans, airports, rush hour traffic and a strong aversion to nonprofit glazed-chicken dinners. I especially want to thank those friends who came and don’t share all of my political opinions. I know it’s shocking, but some people I know don’t think I’m right about everything.

And to everybody else who was a part of this evening. I’m hoping that many of you WILL feel inspired when you leave here tonight. I DO know that I’ll see some of you up here in the next five or ten years.

Thank you."

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