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All paths lead to change

Phoenix councilman empowers people

There’s a line in Phoenix Councilmember Michael Nowakowski’s bio that reads, “… throughout his life he has worked to make a difference and build community. …”

Consider this: he has had some pretty impressive role models and mentors in his life. His parents, of course, ingrained their influence when it came to community involvement.

And as a child growing up in Glendale, he was witness to the charisma of a man named Cesar E. Chavez, who spent many a night at Nowakowski’s parent’s house when the labor leader was in the Valley fighting for the rights of farm workers.

“There I was,” Nowakowski recalls, “working alongside Cesar Chavez not knowing who he was. I did little things like separating shoes, toys and clothes for the farm worker kids.”

From that humble start, Nowakowski, 44, has built quite a name for himself as a community organizer, general manager of a nonprofit radio station, and for the past year Phoenix city councilman for District 7.

Pretty ambitious. But that’s the career path Nowakowski has taken since his teen years when he worked with the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix as assistant director of the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry. He even considered the priesthood after two years of seminary school in Santa Fe, N.M.

“There are three things in life,” Nowakowski says, sitting in his downtown city council office, a painting of Cesar Chavez hanging on one of the walls. “One is God. Two is family. Three is your career. If you keep it in that order, nothing can go wrong.”

That seems true for Nowakowski, an example of a Latino who has been able to recareer himself.

Nowakowski is general manager for radio station 88.3 FM La Campesina, which was created in 1966 in the Center for Peasants National Services Inc. (NFWSC its acronym in English) by founder Cesar Chavez. He is also a devoted family man. He and his wife, Delia, have four sons and one daughter.

So what drives Nowakowski to wear so many hats?

“Empowering people,” he says. “Doing it at the grass roots level. Making change. We (Latinos) have to be on commissions and boards that make us feel uncomfortable. Diverse committees. It’s respect. Then they change. It’s a whole different way of doing things. When it comes time to sit face to face and have that conversation, that’s when we make a difference.”

Nowakowski is councilman for Phoenix’s largest district, population wise. The majority of his constituents are Latinos and Blacks. In the downtown area there are the very rich and the very poor. He ran a historic campaign when he won his council seat in November 2007. He upset Laura Pastor, daughter of Congressman Ed Pastor.

“Delegate and empower,” Nowakowski says, as he hands a visitor a photo copy of Cesar Chavez’s “Prayer of the Farm Worker’s Struggle:”

Show me the suffering of the most miserable;
So I will know my people’s plight.

Free me to pray for others;
For you are present in every person.

Help me to take responsibility for my own life;
So that I can be free at last.

Grant me courage to serve others;
For in service there is true life.

Give me honesty and patience;
So that we can work with other workers.

Bring forth song and celebration;
So that the Spirit will be alive among us.

Let the Spirit flourish and grow;
So that we will never tire of the struggle.

Let us remember those who have died for justice;
For they have given us life.

Help us love even those who hate us;
So that we can change the world.

Much like Cesar Chavez, Nowakowski isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. He has had stints with such varied tasks as co-chair of the City of Phoenix Historic Bond Committee to being a member of the Police Chief’s Advisory Board for more than 16 years to being a founding member of the Mayor’s Anti-Graffiti Task Force to chairman of the Santa Rosa Neighborhood Council.

This Article appears on the January 2009 issue of LPM under Careers

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