Si Kahn has worked for almost 50 years as a professional civil rights, labor and community organizer and musician. He began his organizing career in 1965 in Arkansas with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, more popularly known as SNCC, the student wing of the Southern Civil Rights Movement. During the War on Poverty, he served first as a VISTA Volunteer and later as Deputy Director of an eight-county community action agency in rural Georgia, where he also coached the first racially integrated Little League team in that part of the state.
In the 1970s, he worked with the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) during the Brookside Strike in Harlan County, Kentucky, and was an Area Director of the J.P. Stevens Campaign for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU). These historic labor struggles are portrayed in the movies Harlan County U.S.A. and Norma Rae.
In 1980, Si founded Grassroots Leadership, a national Southern-based progressive organization committed to community, civil rights and labor organizing. He served as its Executive Director for 30 years, stepping down on May Day 2010.
For the past 15 years, Grassroots Leadership has worked to oppose privatization and to defend the public sector. This work currently includes a campaign to abolish all for-profit private prisons, jails and detention centers, including immigrant detention centers, as a step towards helping create a prison and criminal justice system that is at least to some extent just and humane.
In August 2009, shortly before Si’s retirement, Grassroots Leadership won a major national victory in its Campaign to End Immigrant Family Detention, when the Federal government removed 150 children from the notorious for-profit private T. Don Hutto “family residential center” in Taylor, Texas, where children as young as infants were imprisoned together with their parents. The New York Times wrote, “The decision to stop sending families there—and to set aside plans for three new family detention centers—is the Obama administration’s clearest departure from its predecessor’s immigration enforcement policies.”
Si is one of three co-founders of Musicians United To Protect Bristol Bay. Since 2010 he has been actively involved as a passionate volunteer in the international campaign to stop the proposed Pebble Mine and to protect permanently the people, jobs, communities, Native languages, cultures, traditions, and wild sockeye salmon of Alaska’s Bristol Bay, one of the great remaining wild places in the world (www.MusiciansUnited.info).