Joseph Sabino Mistick: Moe Coleman, the man in the middle
For all his life, Moe Coleman, was the man in the middle. It is not that he was “stuck” in the middle as some people often bemoan. He picked that spot because it was where he could do the most good.
Moe died last week at age 86. He had lived a life of service to regular folks who struggle from day to day, neighborhoods that refuse to wither away, a city that was counted out too many times, and the big decision-makers who sometimes let their competitive spirit get in the way of the best decisions.
Moe was a community organizer in Pittsburgh’s poorest segregated neighborhoods in the 1950s. He worked in city government through the 1960s, became an urban planner, advised Henry Ford II on urban redevelopment in Detroit and in other cities, returned to Pittsburgh to become a social work professor, and founded and directed the Institute of Politics at the University of Pittsburgh.
Through racial strife, labor unrest, near-disastrous economic changes and battles over the souls of neighborhoods, Moe remained true to his belief that,
“Representative democracy works only when everyone concerned about a decision is represented.”
In his memoir, “Finding Common Ground,” Moe said, “Neighborhood organizing is all about giving a voice to people who otherwise might not have a seat at the table.”
Moe “submerged” his own strong political and social views in order to mediate the disputes of others. He never quit his own beliefs, but he focused on helping the region move forward. And he chuckled when he conceded that Saul Alinsky, the confrontational Chicago-based community organizer, would have considered him a failure for seeking compromise.
Although he never wanted to be a star, he was comfortable working with the stars of our region. Aldo Colautti, the legendary public administrator, drafted Moe into the Pittsburgh mayor’s office. There, he was schooled by Mayor Joe Barr and then-Gov. David L. Lawrence, the father of modern Pittsburgh.
From then on, those public officials who were more interested in finding common ground than fighting would seek his quiet advice. While that approach never garners much attention, we know even today that not much can get done without it.
Moe believed that the Institute of Politics would be the most enduring piece of his life’s work. Started as a safe place for elected officials to freely discuss difficult policy issues in a nonpartisan setting, the institute now includes community, business and foundation leaders.
In a region managed by fragmented government, the institute has studied infrastructure needs, underfunded municipal pensions, water management, tax reform and tax base sharing, work force diversity and the consolidation of municipal services and governments.
Now chaired by Mark Nordenberg, Pitt’s chancellor emeritus, the institute has become a national model that continues to tackle the toughest problems, like opioid addiction, incarceration policies and practices, and the dilemmas faced by financially strapped communities.
Marie Hamblett, who worked with Moe for over 20 years, said, “Just knowing that Moe was always there, willing to talk, offering his gentle advice, that was reassuring to everyone.”
And that will be Moe’s lasting legacy.
Joseph Sabino Mistick is a Pittsburgh lawyer. Reach him at email@example.com.