Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Denis Murphy

Denis Murphy
Parangal Lingkod Sambayanan (Public Service Award) 2009

When as a young Jesuit, Denis Murphy returned to the Philippines in 1967 fresh from his Masters in Social Work studies at Fordham University, New York, Fr. Horacio de la Costa, S.J., then Provincial, assigned him to work with Fr. Gaston Duchesneau, S.J. at the Institute of Social Order. Fr. Murphy, S.J. was to help develop a strong Jesuit apostolate dedicated to the needs and aspirations of the urban poor. Given the leeway to explore possible locations for this work toward social justice over the next few months, and actively studying Tagalog, he settled on Tondo as the most complex, interesting and challenging of city neighborhoods.

Today Denis Murphy is solidly recognized in civil society circles as “the Father of Community Organizing in the Philippines”. Thousands of community organizers have been trained in “CO” and its many derivatives since the 1970s.

Currently the Executive Director of Urban Poor Associates, which he founded in 1992, he has enabled communities to resist and negotiate poor people’s rights to secure land tenure over the last 44 years. Some 50,000 Filipino families directly owe their access to land tenure to his creativity, dedication and facilitating leadership. Through effective community organizing, poor groups have learned to confront the inequities of urban land distribution, interact as equals with government officials, and utilize both pressure as well as bargaining tactics to become upstanding citizens of this nation.

Denis Murphy helped organized the Philippine Ecumenical Council on Community Organization (PECCO) in the mid-1960s, serving as a representative of the Catholic membership in collaboration with Protestant church representatives. Such an interdenominational alliance was unheard of before then. In the early 1970s he recruited the Catholic board members from academia, media, and the Church as well CO trainees for this new work, selected the Tondo Foreshore as the initial organizing area, and spent many hours “doing legwork” to convinced disheartened residents as well as some “know it all” authoritarian local leaders that democratic organizing could indeed lead to a better life for all.

The resulting Zone One Tondo Organization, which still thrives today, is living proof that informed, determined, and active poor people can, as organized groups, transform social power discrepancies and demand benefits not voluntarily allocated to them by the larger society. The results emerged in ZOTO’s victories around secure land tenure on the Tondo Foreshore and Dagat-dagatan, Navotas in the 1970s, the residents’ subsequent access to improved basic services, infrastructure improvements, and housing, and their ability to sustain these accomplishments and confront new challenges over time.

Denis Murphy’s vision and enabling leadership continues to move and shape Philippine society in the 21st century, giving empowered people a voice in their own destiny. As a result more enlightened government processes have emerged in the course of this “demand from below”. Today many housing officials in government are strong advocates for people’s participation in human settlements planning, having discovered that negotiating with organized poor groups who can articulate their perspectives and recommend workable solutions, makes their own work easier and more effective.

Soon after ZOTO was organized, “CO” spread to many other cities in the Philippines. So notable were these early developments that other Asian groups working with their own urban poor readily responded in 1971 to Denis Murphy’s advocacy for an ecumenical network, the Asian Committee for People’s Organization, each with its own national set of equivalent NGOs and POs. Remaining at the forefront of civil society initiatives in support of the urban poor in Asia, ACPO recognizes Denis Murphy as consistently having organized the Catholic Church’s participation in the work.

In 1976, he left the Jesuit order but continued his commitment to community organizing. His subsequent marriage to community organizer Alice Gentolia-Murphy created the well-known and formidable “dynamic duo” that has brought significant breakthroughs for people empowerment. He credits the Society of Jesus for protecting him when the Marcos Administration not only refused him permission to work with the Office of Human Development, Federation of Asian Bishops Conference (OHD/FABC), but threatened to deport him as well.

Safely back at the OHD/FABC a few weeks later, the bishops again asked him to concentrate on the cities and their growing numbers of urban poor informal settlers, disempowered and living in inhumanly degraded environments. This effort would include organizing the Bishops Institute for Social Action, with a major program that brought hundreds of bishops from Asia and other continents to the Philippines. The bishops met as a group to discuss what they had experienced and discerned in the light of the Gospel and the Social Teachings of the Church.

This commitment to involving the Church directly in dialogues with the poor, thereby making the Gospel resonate in the everyday lives of marginalized groups, continues to be a part of Mr. Murphy’s mission now. He insists that the Church is the most reliable ally of the urban poor in their struggles for a better life, and that it is part of his role to help people make their faith a motivational force in community organizing.

As for his Jesuit brothers, some of whom remain his best friends, he believes that “A person can best appreciate the Jesuits if he knows them from within and from without. One point of view without the other is inadequate.”

Denis Murphy is also a prolific writer who expertly combines his social and humanities proclivities. Some 30 articles and poems of his have been published in America, the Society’s official magazine in the United States. His four volumes of short stories and his novel, A Watch in the Night, have been widely read. Although exercises in fiction, they are usually based on the real social issues he has confronted all his life. But perhaps he is best known among today’s reading public for his insightful articles in the Philippine Daily Inquirer as well as the now-defunct Manila Chronicle.

For his dedication to community organizing as a vital social force toward social justice in Asia;

For enabling thousands of urban poor families to achieve dignity by having a voice in their own secure future, for training and inspiring hundreds of young community organizers to be “men and women for urban poor others,” for assisting the Catholic Church to carry out its preferential option for the poor in the Philippines and Asia and to do so in ecumenical partnerships;

And for his contributions to social commentary and fiction rooted in social issues, the Ateneo de Manila University, in this year’s sesquicentennial anniversary of its foundation, is proud to confer the Parangal Lingkod Sambayanan on Denis Murphy.


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