[COMM-ORG] Passing of Shel Trapp

Discussion list for COMM-ORG colist at comm-org.wisc.edu
Wed Oct 20 20:30:23 CDT 2010

  [ed: here is a more formal obituary.]

From: Gordon Mayer <gordon at npa-us.org>
October 20, 2010


For more information contact NPA at 312-243-3035


Shel Trapp passed away at 2 p.m. Monday, October 18 after an illness 
that had sent him to the hospital with pneumonia the week before. His 
wife and children were with him when he died. He was 75.

Among the first organizers to successfully apply Alinsky-style tactics 
of direct action and confronting people with power to elites and 
decision makers at a national level, Trapp is widely credited with 
quarterbacking community groups’ drive to pass the Community 
Reinvestment Act in the 1970s and continuing that work through the 
initial phases of organizing against subprime lending in the late 1990s. 
As an author of manuals and trainer of organizers he’s credited with 
motivating literally thousands to choose organizing as a career.

“You’d be hard pressed to find an organizer that more consistently 
organized busloads of everyday Americans to powerfully confront the 
nation’s corporate and political elite. Trapp challenged thousands of us 
to push beyond our comfort zone and take risks in the name of justice. 
We often call this being fearless, but Trapp taught us it is not about 
being without fear, but actually having the guts to push beyond our fears..”

Born in rural Minnesota, all of Trapp’s hair dropped out from alopecia 
areata around the age of 13. This early experience of injustice, and the 
death of his father on a camping trip≤ sensitized him to injustice and 
what he referred to in training sessions he led for literally thousands 
of community organizers throughout his life as “the dignity of wounds.”

Trapp attended North Central College in Naperville, where he was known 
as both a football player and a practical joker, and where he met his 
wife Anne, the daughter of a Methodist bishop. After school, he 
ministered to mostly German-American parishes on Chicago’s North Side. 
In 1963 he was one of the first ministers to be arrested in Mississippi 
in support of Civil Rights. He seemed poised to go further in the 
Methodist hierarchy but felt something missing. In the mid-1960s Trapp 
attended a seminar led by Tom Gaudette, who had been trained in 
community organizing by Saul Alinsky, and found his calling.

Trapp went to work at Gaudette’s new project, the Organization for a 
Better Austin, where blockbusting and racial-inspired panic peddling 
quickly became the most important issues he worked on. There he honed 
his direct-action technique – the 1971 Supreme Court case Organization 
for a Better Austin vs. Keefe settled the legality of whether protesters 
could picket in front of a real estate broker’s home. Also at OBA, Trapp 
met Gale Cincotta, the West Side mother of six with whom he went on to 
found the first citywide community organizing group in Chicago, the 
Metropolitan Area Housing Alliance.

The two went on to foster the growth of a national coalition of 
neighborhood groups called National People’s Action on Housing, the 
predecessor of today’s NPA network of community organizing groups from 
coast to coast.

The NPA attained its first national victory in 1975, winning legislation 
that mandated disclosure of lending data from banks across the country. 
Don Elmer, a board member of National People’s Action, recalled in 2008 
the jolt that Trapp helped to deliver to community organizing with this 
work: “The organizing field was shocked (One famous network said we 
should wait 20 years until we had the capacity before we went national!) 
and to tell the truth so were we.”

Using the data that thereby became available, Trapp and Cincotta’s band 
of community organizations demonstrated the existence of redlining, in 
which banks took deposits from older urban-core communities and lent the 
money in the form of mortgages in other, often suburban, areas. That led 
to passage of the Community Reinvestment Act, which generated billions 
of dollars for neighborhoods across the country. The NPA coalition 
continued to work on housing and banking issues as well as a 
constellation of other community concerns throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

As organizer-in-chief to the network of groups across the country, Trapp 
wrote numerous training manuals with titles such as “Who Me Organize? 
Yes You!” and “Blessed Be the Fighters.” Organizers whom Trapp mentored 
from this period recall that in addition to confronting power and 
inciting grassroots groups to direct action, Trapp excelled at breaking 
issues down to their simplest parts.

Among his proudest achievements was his work to help create ADAPT, the 
national disability-rights organization, with whom he consulted from the 
beginning of their work to free people from nursing homes through the 
campaign to win accessible public transport and ultimately pass the 
Americans with Disabilities Act.

At the age of 65 in September 2000 Trapp retired from his position as 
organizing director, having mentored and helped to create or 
strengthening hundreds of community organizations across the country. He 
continued to be involved in organizing, serving on the board of NPA and 
playing a key role in organizer-training sessions for the group. He led 
sessions on how to negotiate with people in power and other topics as 
recently as the end of August at the NPA Power School organizer training.

Organizers loved Trapp for his colorful language as well as his simple 
and direct take on life, “My dad was blessed to do what he loved, and 
what he was passionate about,” said his daughter, Kathy Dzielak. They 
also recalled that his gruff demeanor belied a gentle soul. Anne-Marie 
Douglas, who worked with Trapp and Cincotta for 30 years “He was a tough 
guy, and still so gentle.”

He leaves behind his loving family, wife Anne, daughter Kathy, son 
Rollie, son-in-law Dennis, daughter-in-law Becky and 4 beautiful 
grandchildren, Chloe, Ben, Jake and Ellen, along with so many friends. 
Please share your stories or comments with the family and the larger 
community here: http://showdowninamerica.org/your-legacy-lives#comment-136

Donations may be sent to National People's Action, 810 N. Milwaukee 
Ave., Chicago, IL 60642 (or made online at NPA's satellite website, 

A memorial is planned for early December in Chicago -- stay tuned for 


Gordon Mayer, operations director
National People's Action
810 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, IL 60642
312-676-2818 direct 312-307-0133 cell

On 10/19/2010 8:29 PM, Discussion list for COMM-ORG wrote:
> --------
> This is a COMM-ORG 'colist' message.
> All replies to this message come to COMM-ORG only.
> --------
>    [ed: the news is coming in from many corners of the passing of Shel
> Trapp. As always, we mourn the loss and celebrate the legacy. All
> comments, stories, and remembrances are welcome.]
> From: Dave Beckwith<dbeckwith at needmorfund.org>
> A giant is gone…
> From: George Goehl [mailto:george at npa-us.org]
> Sent: Tuesday, October 19, 2010 2:19 PM
> Friends of NPA – wanted to share the tough news that NPA Co-Founder Shel
> Trapp passed away yesterday. Below is a note to the npa network.
> ------ Forwarded Message
> From: George Goehl<george at npa-us.org>
> Date: Tue, 19 Oct 2010 12:51:20 -0500
> Subject: NPAction Shel Trapp 1935-2010
> Dear NPA Family,
> NPA co-founder and agitator-extraordinaire Shel Trapp passed away from
> complications with pneumonia yesterday. He was 75. He leaves behind his
> loving family, wife Anne, daughter Kathy, son Rollie, son-in-law Dennis,
> daugter-in-law Becky and 4 beautiful grandchildren, Chloe, Ben, Jake and
> Ellen.
> We all have the honor and responsibility of being part of National
> People’s Action, a rare organization in America. There is no other
> entity in this country that has had the guts to consistently and
> directly confront corporate and political elites in the way that NPA has
> over the last 38 years. The courage and fight that it takes to do
> hard-hitting direct action is part of our DNA, deeply engrained in the
> culture of National People’s Action. And without question, this DNA can
> be traced back to a preacher turned organizer named Shel Trap.
> One of the organizational values of NPA is “To push beyond the edge of
> what’s possible.” For Trapp, that meant pushing beyond our own personal
> edge, beyond what was comfortable. We often call this being fearless,
> but Trapp would tell us it is not about being without fear, but actually
> having the guts to push beyond those fears. That’s why he saw direct
> action as such a powerful tactic – because it not only transforms
> relations of power, but also transforms the human spirit.
> Trapp had the unique ability to see something inside each of us that we
> didn’t see in ourselves. And through this insight, and his ability and
> willingness to agitate, he helped untold organizers and community
> leaders brush past insecurities, cultural norms, or whatever was
> standing in our way of tapping into our fullest potential.
> Joe Hill, the great labor agitator and songwriter, wrote before his
> execution in 1915, “Don’t mourn for me, but organize.” I know Trapp
> would say the same thing to us now. Our economy and our democracy are in
> rough shape. People are hurting and looking for hope. We can best bring
> people hope, and honor Trapp, by actualizing a favorite quote of his -
> “In the face of injustice there is only one correct response, ATTACK!”
> Nothing would make him happier than knowing his passing prompted each of
> us to move more people to engage in powerful direct action at this
> tenuous moment in our nation’s history. As I write this, the Alliance to
> Develop Power is doing just that – paying a surprise visit to the
> American Bankers Association Convention in Boston. Somewhere Trapp is
> smiling.
> Trapp did not want a funeral, but this Friday his family will be having
> a gathering at the NPA office from 7-9 pm. Any and all are welcome
> (except bankers).
> The Trapp family and NPA will be holding a big party in Chicago later
> this year to celebrate his incredible life and the impact he had on so
> many. We’ll get details to all of you as they become clear.
> In solidarity,
> George
> National People’s Action

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