Thank goodness for Mr. Box.
Mr. Box was Mike Loftin’s math teacher at McKinley Middle School, one of those iconic teachers who set you on the right path at just the right moment of life.
For Loftin, the moment came after he was “cutting up and making some jokes” when he should have been focusing on sines and cosines.
And that’s when he got the “fork-in-the-road” speech from his teacher: “Mike, you’re a smart guy. You could go to college. You could do a lot of things. But you’ve just got to decide. Do you want to do that, or do you want to do what you’re doing?”
And Mr. Box, a “complete nerd” who wore polyester and was made fun of by students, according to Loftin, went on to say: “I feel bad for you because when I was going to school, the kids who did well in school were the kids who were honored, who people wanted to emulate. Your generation is different. … You’re the outcast if you’re a good student. So for you to decide to go in this other direction, it’s going to be harder than it was for me.”
The speech worked like magic.
“I went from being a mediocre student to valedictorian at Del Norte,” Loftin said.
And then he went on to get a full-ride scholarship at Northwestern University near Chicago. There, he found another important mentor, who showed him how to solve problems through community organizing – specifically, by helping people to buy homes as a way of changing poor, immigrant neighborhoods.
Loftin initially worked for the same organization as the young Barack Obama (“We all thought, boy, this guy is super-smart.”), but left to work for a coalition of six “ethnic-based churches” representing everything from liberation theology Catholicism to conservative east European parishes.
It’s work that Loftin continues today through Homewise, a nonprofit that seeks to boost homeownership in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
“What I love about organizing is it brings (together) diverse perspectives and points of view,” he said. “That’s the American … journey. We figured out how to find common ground among diverse groups of people from all over the world, and that was a big part of our secret sauce was when the rest of the world said, ‘We don’t want you,’ America said, ‘No; bring us your poor, your yearning to be free. … We saw that as opportunity, not problem.
“Organizing has that philosophy: We have a lot in common. Let’s figure it out.”
You were raised in New Mexico but graduated from college and got your first couple of jobs in Chicago. What brought you back?
I’ve always had this pull back to New Mexico. I’ve always loved the place, as the mess it is, and it’s always a mess. When I left, Bruce King was governor. Fifteen years later, I come back and Bruce King is governor. What changes, right? And it kills me. Why can’t we get better? There is something fundamentally wrong with, you know, “Thank God for Mississippi.”
What do you do in your spare time?
Work a lot. I like to work a lot. When I’m not working, I love to garden. I have a big vegetable garden. I’m in charge of all the compost for the office. It’s like my project. And I love to fish, which my dad got us into that. And I love fishing New Mexico streams because they’re little and they’re interesting. There aren’t big fish, but you can go and never see anyone. All those little streams in the Pecos are really cool. You get lost. That’s what fishing is. You’re using everything you’ve got to outsmart an animal with a brain the size of a BB. It’s just a focus. Everything else falls away.
And I like to read. My wife will say, “If you want to understand what is true, read fiction. If you want to understand the world, read non-fiction.” I actually agree that’s true. So “Brothers Karamazov,” to explore what is true, what matters. Love that. I love those kind of big, sweeping novels.
What really worries you?
Oh, in this country, what’s going on. We forgot about the common good. It’s factions, polarization, not finding common ground, dismissing. Part of the problem is the decline of journalism. Facts now are a matter of opinion, not a matter of what reasonable people can agree is true. Facts are essential to finding common ground. It really worries me. And then there’s hate. Reasonable people can disagree on immigration laws and what we should do. I get that. Making people “the other,” you are demonizing them, like we should fear them. … That’s what happened in Nazi Germany. I’m not comparing our current situation to that time period, but that dehumanization of other people, that’s a bad, bad thing … and it’s against all our traditions. You know, we’re not working together to find solutions.
I actually really loved “Black Panther,” and I didn’t think I would because I don’t really like the superhero movies. It’s the same story line. But they did do a different take on it. … You know, I love Orson Welles movies. Because they’re just really good explorations of the human condition; you know, we’re good and we’re bad and we have the capacity for both. I love “The Post” for that same thing. They didn’t make these decisions easily. How do we struggle with doing what’s right when it’s not easy to tell what’s right, and there’s more than one right?
Do you have any hidden talents?
I’m a good cook. I love making Vietnamese food. In Chicago, I worked for a while in a neighborhood that had a lot of Southeast Asian refuges, and they had just dynamite Vietnamese food. It was, like, super-cheap. One of my going-away presents from that job was a Vietnamese cookbook. I’m very comfortable, I don’t need a recipe … to try stuff. Sometimes it’s really good, and then the problem is sometimes you forget how to replicate it. And sometimes it’s really bad.
One would be people who are what what some of my friends call “professional snipers” who sit on the sidelines and take potshots at what everyone else is doing, but they never try themselves. You know we need to be working on stuff and we’re going to make mistakes, and that’s OK, but you don’t get to be self-righteous and criticize what everybody else does. And I coach other younger people … who get into this kind of work because they get rattled – people criticize what they do a lot – if you’re not getting criticized for what you do, you’re probably not doing the right things. You’re probably working on the wrong stuff. As long as you maintain your integrity and be honest and listen to people and do your best, you sleep well at night.