John Calkins, the Executive Director of the DART Center, grew up a small rural town in Sugar Grove, Illinois of 350 people. He went to Northwestern University for his undergraduate studies, and later went into the Peace Corps in 1965 as part of the fourth set of volunteers in the history of the program. He was placed in Niger in West Africa, and was successful in his assignment to set up purchasing and crediting cooperatives revolving around cotton for regional African villages. John says this is where his eyes first began to open to the world outside his life growing up in a small town. He also said this is where he discovered his appreciation for working with people – an appreciation obviously strong today. He reenlisted for a third year in the Peace Corps and became a model volunteer for the region.
A March for the Poor
His life took another turn as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in 1968. While walking on campus, John was recruited to participate in a march led by Father James Groppi from Milwaukee to Madison to prevent cuts in basic welfare programs. John and his wife, Betsy – a fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteer – would drive out to meet participants walking in the march every day, march alongside with them, and then return back to school every night. John became the Head Organizer for the Wisconsin Welfare Rights Organization, where he continued to develop his interests in justice.
Discovering a Mentor in Cleveland
In 1974, John, his wife and two kids left for Cleveland where he been hired at the modest sum of $600 a month for six months to pull together a community organization. John met Herb White, a United Church of Christ Minister, during his time in Cleveland. Herb ultimately became John’s mentor and has played an instrumental role in developing and challenging John during the early stages of his career. Herb’s experiences with organizing and ministering to local congregations helped to crystallize much of the approach used in the formative years of DART. It was Herb White who originally invited John to Miami, Florida in 1977 to begin a local community organization, Concerned Seniors. John Calkins and the Concerned Seniors group quickly became known for routinely producing hundreds, if not thousands of people to city meetings to voice their opinions. Given the success of Concerned Citizens, Herb, along with Msgr. Bryan O’Walsh, Joe Mazaneck, and Rev. JW Stepherson, further encouraged John to form the DART Center and accept invitations to build new organizations throughout the state of Florida and beyond.
Miami Race Riots & the Creation of PULSE
A three-day race riot that lit up the city of Miami in 1980 turned out to be another turning point in the history of DART. The riot broke out after an all-white jury acquitted four white Miami police officers of killing Arthur McDuffie, a black insurance salesman. The cops had beaten McDuffie with their flashlights and clubs, and he died in the hospital. Eighteen people died during the rioting and more than $100 million was lost in property damage. The officers’ acquittal and the devastation left behind by the riots angered and shocked all those involved with Concerned Seniors. It seemed everyone was looking for a way to do something. John along with others led an organizing drive among African American congregations throughout the city of Miami, eventually forming People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality (PULSE). After winning several local issues related to minority hiring and job creation, a leader from PULSE challenged the organization to deal with the continued lack of accountability for police officers involved in violence toward African Americans. In the 80s, several incidents of police brutalizing African Americans came about in the city of Miami. When formal charges were made against the officers in question, they were acquitted of wrongdoing in court. After a series of cases, it became apparent that the process was unjust. Leaders from PULSE discovered attorneys for the police were able to create an unlevel playing field by striking African Americans from the jury pool using peremptory challenges. Ultimately, PULSE prevailed at the state level making it illegal to use preemptorary challenges based on race.
Forming the DART Center around People
After PULSE, John began organizing Justice for All in Broward (JAB), and ultimately those involved began to see the state of Florida as fertile grounds for a network of local community organizations. In 1980, the DART Center was founded to answer invitations to build community organizations. Originally, the notion was to build a statewide network of local organizations in Florida, but when people from outside the state attended DART trainings, invitations to work elsewhere came into DART’s office and were accepted.
When discussing the early history of DART with John Calkins, he stubbornly denies credit for the organization or refuses to agree that DART is the work of a few visionaries or heroes. John vehemently argues that to describe the formation and expansion of DART in that way would mischaracterize the way this works. He points to lots of people, like Holly Holcombe, Aleem Fakir, Rev. John Aeschbury, Rev. Robert Owens, Aaron Dorfman, Dr. Jana Adams, Haley Grossman, Rev. Robert Linthicum, John Musick, Rev. Herb White, Joe Mazaneck, Msgr. Bryan O’Walsh, Rev. J.W. Stepherson, and many others.
John is also quick to welcome new people into the work of justice and expectantly awaits others to help shape the future of the DART Center.