Obituary: Alan Gleitsman - a man who made a difference

China Labour Bulletin was greatly saddened to learn of the death on May 19 this year of Alan Gleitsman, a tireless campaigner for human rights and social justice both in the U.S. and around the world. Alan will be greatly missed by the numerous groups and individuals whose lives and work were touched by his vision and generosity.

In 1989, Alan and his wife Cheri established The Gleitsman Foundation, a non-profit organization that recognizes and encourages leadership in social activism worldwide. The Foundation sponsors several main awards while also encouraging myriad grassroots organizations. The foundation's Citizen Activist Award honours those who have challenged social injustice in the United States; the International Activist Award is designed to honour activist achievement throughout the world; and the Award of Achievement is presented monthly to activists throughout the world who have struggled to cure an injustice in their community.

Among the many recipients of the International Activist Award have been Nelson Mandela, Wei Jingsheng, Mahmoud Abbas, Jose Ramos-Horta, Beate and Serge Klarsfeld, and (in 2005) CLB's director Han Dongfang.

A commemorative service for Alan Gleitsman was held at the Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles on May 31, 2006. Han Dongfang was present at the service and gave the following brief speech:

I first met Alan and Cheri 10 years ago. Since then, we have been together on many happy occasions, both in L.A. and Hong Kong, where I live. The news of Alan's death came as a great shock to me and my colleagues in the pro-democracy and labour rights movement in both Hong Kong and mainland China.

Alan was a person who wanted to make this world a better and fairer place for us all. He had an international vision. Last year, I was deeply honoured to receive the Gleitsman Foundation's International Activist Award for 2005. Alan and Cheri came all the way to Hong Kong for the presentation ceremony. I was a political prisoner in China after the June 4 massacre. I'd like to tell you just how much it means to those imprisoned for their peaceful beliefs, to know that there are people like Alan out there keeping your memory alive and fighting for your freedom.

Alan told me at a dinner I had with him and Cheri just last month that he retired 20 years ago. In fact, he was working harder than ever. He was tireless in seeking out causes, groups and individuals, like CLB and me, who he felt were doing valuable work to combat poverty, discrimination, political repression, and other human rights violations.

He was great at networking, but above all, he cared about people. He was a man of much grace and natural humility. When you were together with Alan, he was always more interested in knowing about you and your work than in talking about himself.

Alan had a particular interest in China, where I come from, and in trying to promote social justice and democracy there. He first visited China 30 years ago and the first Gleitsman International Award went to Wei Jingsheng, China's most famous political prisoner.

Alan also knew how to get good results from those whom he helped. You always wanted to justify the great hope and trust he had put in you, because you knew how much he himself cared.

I hope that my and my colleagues' work over the past few years would have made Alan feel that his trust was well placed. Thanks to the Gleitsman Foundation's support, CLB has been able to hire mainland lawyers to help get labour activists out of prison in China. Alan's support also directly helped us hire lawyers to represent dozens of workers suffering from silicosis, a deadly occupational disease, and to get them unprecedented compensation awards through the courts.

The Gleitsman Foundation's support also helped build a growing network of labour activists around China, people who in the years to come will help build a civil society, fighting for social justice and labour rights for many millions of my fellow citizens.

I am quite sure that all of the Gleitsman Foundation's awardees have similar stories to tell. Alan touched all of our lives deeply – and his work and legacy will, I'm quite sure, continue to change our societies for the better.

Alan told the Los Angeles Times in 1990, "I want to recognize people who make a difference, to tell their story and make other people aware of what one person can do."

In fact, these words apply best of all to Alan himself. His story showed clearly how great a difference one person can make.

21 June 2006

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