Eleanor Josaitis: Passionate civil rights activist

Eleanor Josaitis

Focus: HOPE Co-founder Eleanor Josaitis, whose passion for justice gave hope and opportunities to countless thousands for well over four decades, passed away August 9, 2011.

Josaitis died 14 years after the passing of Father William T. Cunningham with whom she founded Focus: HOPE in the wake of the 1967 Detroit riots. At her side were her husband of 55 years, Donald; her five children, and other family and friends. 

The housewife turned civil rights activist dedicated the last 43 years of her life to “intelligent and practical action to overcome racism, poverty and injustice” as proclaimed in the Focus: HOPE mission statement. She became a national advocate for a food program designed to meet the nutrition needs for children and seniors; a proponent of job training programs that gave women and minorities access to the financial mainstream, and a passionate Detroiter who strove to revitalize the city and its neighborhoods.

“There’s no greater way to eliminate racism and poverty than to see that people have education, skills, jobs and opportunities in life,” she frequently said.

Josaitis is widely regarded as a leader who fought with courage and tenacity for causes close to her heart. She experienced the jubilation of winning Congressional approval of a national food program that has assisted hundreds of thousands of low income families; the loneliness of a lengthy, and eventually victorious, federal discrimination lawsuit against a local employer; and the satisfaction of providing job training and support services that have put more than 11,000 talented men and women into successful, good-paying careers.

Josaitis said the turning point in her life came as she watched a televised report on the violence inflicted on civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama. The horrific scene of dogs and firehouses unleashed on American citizens ignited her passion for justice.

She became a civil rights activist—and a few years later co-founded Focus: HOPE when violence erupted in her own city. She often recalled walking the streets of Detroit the day after the riots ended telling Cunningham they had to do something to get at the root of the problems that caused the tragedy.

Among their first actions was conducting a study that showed the pricing and quality discrepancies between urban and suburban grocery and drug stores. Their findings gained national attention and put Focus: HOPE on the map as an organization that would make a difference in the inner city.
Josaitis and Cunningham were an unlikely pair. She was raising a family in suburban Taylor, while he was a Catholic priest who preached at her church and had become a regular guest for Sunday dinner at the Josaitis home. Her five children grew up with “Uncle Bill” and Focus: HOPE integrated into their family.
While Cunningham was the outspoken visionary, Josaitis was the practical operations manager. When he passed away in 1997, many thought Focus: HOPE would fade from existence. Nothing could be further from the truth. Josaitis came into her own as a leader and public figure. With fierce determination, she took Focus: HOPE into the 21st century despite economic, political and social challenges.

Although she often asked others to help her “make Father Cunningham’s work live on,” in reality it was her work as well. She regularly worked 12 hour days and demanded the same of colleagues and students.

Where there was a problem, she found a solution. When she saw students having difficulty getting to school on time because of day care issues, she told Cunningham they had to open a child care center. When prospective students couldn’t pass a basic math and reading test, the co-founders started skill enrichment classes. When she saw children walking to school past abandoned houses, she worked her connections to get as many torn down as possible.

When she realized that a good education didn’t mitigate all the challenges faced by Focus: HOPE students, she started conducting etiquette classes. “I want them to know all the rules—what piece of silverware to use, how to shake hands, make eye contact, work a room, what to do at a cocktail party,” she said. “People put a label on you real quick. I want to remove that label.”

The firebombing of Focus: HOPE’s offices in the 1970s, the vile “love letters” she received, and the tornado that inflicted $18 million in damages to the campus just two months after Father Cunningham’s passing never discouraged her.  And those tragedies only made her and the organization stronger.
“I refuse to be intimidated,” she said. “It just makes me want to work harder.”

Nothing warmed her heart more than graduates returning to give her hugs and tell her that they had a great job, a family, a house – and even took a vacation. She recalled one woman quietly walking up to thank her. “I’m about to get my Ph.D and I was once on your food program,” she whispered.

Josaitis often told the story of how she received a call from a woman looking for help with food. “I went on bragging about our great food program for women and children and she shouted into the phone ‘I’m 75 years old and you want me to get pregnant before you’ll give me food?!’

“She told me off like only your grandmother can,” Josaitis said. But the call ignited her passion for helping senior citizens gain access to the Commodity Supplemental Food Program. It took a few years and several trips to Washington before seniors were added—and they now make up the vast majority of participants in the 39 states that offer the program.

It was while advocating for the program, that Josaitis learned a lesson that shaped her leadership skills. When she and Father Cunningham were testifying before a congressional subcommittee, she sat across ‘from the meanest man I’ve ever seen.” During a break in the hearing, the late U.S. Senator Phil Hart took Eleanor aside and told her: “If you had decked him like you were going to, he’d have won and you’d have gone to the slammer. You have to learn to outclass them.”

The rest of her life was spent outclassing anyone who stood in her way.

In addition to her husband, she is survived by her children Mark, Janet (James) Denk, Michael, Thomas, and Mary (Mark) Lendzion;  grandchildren Elizabeth, Kevin, Nora, David, Chelsie, Alec and Alison;  sisters Margaret Krueger and Janet Lang, and brother Louis Reed.

She is also survived by thousands whose lives are better off because of Eleanor Josaitis, Father William Cunningham, and Focus: HOPE.

To download a copy of Eleanor's funeral program, click here.

High resolution files of the photos below are at: https://mccicorp.box.net/shared/opcxkcv8b7