Activist follows convictions in caring for sons, working on social causes

URBANA – Ricky Baldwin isn't afraid to go where his convictions lead him.

When the local political activist and his wife, Catherine Gray, moved to Champaign-Urbana in December 2001 with 4-month-old twin boys in tow, Baldwin had a choice to make.

Should he try to find another job as a union representative, the demanding position he had held in his previous home in Buffalo, N.Y., or should he consider a different path?

His wife had landed a good job as an associate professor of English at the University of Illinois. That meant either day care for their boys, Sammy and Izzy, or Baldwin could become a stay-at-home dad.

Baldwin chose his boys.

"It was a good time for us to trade places," said Baldwin. "Those first few months (after the boys were born), when I was working 60 hours a week, I realized I was missing the whole thing."

"I haven't regretted it at all," he said of the new arrangement.

Durl Kruse, a friend who works with Baldwin on progressive political causes, said Baldwin's decision to be a stay-at-home dad showed his self-confidence.

"I think he takes great pride in doing things that are important to him, regardless of what people might think about them," Kruse said. "I think a lot of people do things to be accepted by their peer group. I think Ricky's very comfortable with himself."

The 41-year-old Baldwin's quiet but persuasive influence is increasingly being felt on the local political scene, where his volunteer work is beginning to show results.

He's a leading member of the Champaign County Coalition for Citizen Police Review, which is pushing for the creation of citizen boards to review complaints against police officers. He's also active with AWARE, the anti-war, anti-racism effort, and he helped create a local chapter of Jobs With Justice, which works to bring unions and community groups together on issues of economic justice and workers' rights.

The city of Urbana is poised to enact a civilian police review board later this spring, and Baldwin's efforts have been a factor, said former Urbana Alderwoman Esther Patt.

"He was one of the main forces getting that before the mayor and city council candidates" during the 2005 campaign, Patt said. "He pretty much led the coalition."

Baldwin is "practical, reasonable and down to earth," and his lack of stridency makes him effective in dealing with elected officials, she said.

A native of Corinth, Miss., Baldwin went to college at the University of Mississippi, where he earned master's degrees in German and math.

Baldwin said the outwardly racist Mississippi of the 1960s seemed largely gone when he grew up there. He was a part of the first class in Corinth to attend integrated schools throughout its school career.

But at college in Oxford, Miss., Baldwin said he realized he might have been a bit sheltered by his family as a youth. He saw more frequent expressions of racism on campus – and it helped push him to the left.

Mississippi "is kind of a place of extremes," he explained. "You don't encounter a lot of middle ground."

He recalls working at a McDonald's one summer during college when a white man walked into the restaurant with a rifle, alarming patrons and restaurant staff.

Police were called and the man said he had been threatened by an armed black man across the street. Baldwin said he watched, amazed, as police tore the black man's car apart looking for a gun. They didn't find any gun, but let the white man with the rifle go free, not even taking his weapon.

"I became more and more sensitized that the problem of racism was a lot bigger than I realized," Baldwin said.

Local activists say Baldwin is making a difference on a number of issues.

"He is just a fantastic organizer," said Urbana resident Carol Inskeep, a neighbor who has worked with Baldwin on various causes. "He's very pro-democracy. He's always trying to get common, everyday people involved in the decisions that affect their lives."

"He's extremely patient with people and extremely positive about their efforts," said Kruse.

Baldwin joined AWARE the first month he arrived in town, when he first read about anti-war protests occurring along North Prospect Avenue, protesting U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. He was one of only four or five people in those picket lines. AWARE's numbers grew in the buildup to the war with Iraq – though in 2003 the group often drew military supporters as well.

Baldwin was heavily involved in the successful effort last year to get advisory questions on the November ballot in Urbana and Champaign asking if voters support withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. A second question asking if voters favor impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney was also put on the ballot.

The anti-war questions passed with 65 percent of the vote in Urbana and 58 percent in Champaign. Impeachment was favored in Urbana, with nearly 59 percent of the vote, while 46 percent favored impeachment in Champaign.

Baldwin helped arrange four fundraisers that raised more than $1,000 for yard signs promoting the ballot questions. He also handled news releases and brought in outside anti-war speakers.

His happiest moment on election night, Baldwin said, was seeing U.S. Rep. Timothy Johnson, R-Urbana, a former supporter of the war, call it a quagmire and say he didn't think the American people would support two more years of war.

"Breaking with a sitting president of his own party, that's not an easy thing to do," he said. "It took courage."

More recent efforts by Baldwin have been involved with establishing a local chapter of Jobs With Justice.

The group, which consists of more than 200 people who have signed pledge cards, often marches in sympathy with local labor unions and has picketed the Urbana Wal-Mart to protest company working conditions and health insurance coverage.

In early 2005, Baldwin made a brief foray into electoral politics, running for alderman in Ward 5 in Urbana. He lost by eight votes in the Democratic primary to Dennis Roberts.

Roberts is doing a good job as alderman and, as a result, Baldwin said he doesn't mind having lost the race.

He explained there are worse things in life than losing – like political apathy.

"If you don't speak up, people are making decisions for you based on their interests," said Baldwin. "It's important you jump in."

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