Gabriel McMorland is moving on. After five years as the executive director of the Thomas Merton Center and eight years of total employment, the local activist plans to leave his post this fall.
“It’s important to rotate,” he tells Pittsburgh City Paper, both in terms of organizational leadership and “what we’re doing in life.”
The Thomas Merton Center, named for the American Trappist monk and founded by anti-war activists Molly Rush and Larry Kessler, celebrates its 50th birthday this year, after beginning as a storefront on the South Side to protest the Vietnam War. Over the past five decades, the nonprofit has worked “to empower marginalized populations to advance collective liberation from oppressive systems,” according to its mission statement, organizing around topics like anti-racism, public transit, homelessness, gay rights, labor issues, and more.
Although he’s always been familiar with the values and priorities of the anti-war movement that spawned the Merton Center because of growing up with “liberal, intellectual parents,” McMorland, who just turned 40, says he came to community organizing and the Merton Center in his 30s after some time away from Pittsburgh and a lot of personal growth and change.
Born in Pittsburgh, McMorland went to high school in Rochester, N.Y., which he describes as “a smaller Pittsburgh.” Even though he didn’t really want to go to college, he applied to the University of Pittsburgh and moved back to the Steel City. “I ended up here because it seemed sort of familiar,” he says.
After his first semester at Pitt, he planned to drop out of college, “move back to the bunk bed with my little brother, work landscaping all summer, pick a random city, and go there.” His plans changed, however, when he started to lose his vision through an unexpected genetic mutation. He did exit his program, but instead ended up working and playing music and adjusting to his new circumstances.
“I wasn't in a really good emotional place to do anything once I started losing my vision,” he says. “That was pretty traumatic.”
Back then, McMorland wasn’t yet an activist. “I would not describe myself in my 20s or teens or in the 2000s as an activist,” he says. “I mostly did things like hung out at [The Mr. Roboto Project, an all-ages DIY nonprofit venue] or played in punk bands, and then would go to protests when people had them. I didn’t really think about what it took to create them.”
In 2009, he says, he re-enrolled at Pitt and also “started using a cane, you know, the stick that lets people know you’re blind. That was another big identity shift there, too, actually, because it meant that people were no longer thinking I was trying to shoulder them out of the way on the sidewalk or shoplift. But it did mean that just random strangers will come up to me all the time and be like, ‘I’m gonna help you cross the road!’ and I’m like, ‘I’m on the phone, I’m not even trying to cross the road! What are you doing?’”
McMorland graduated from Pitt about 10 years after he initially enrolled, which, he says, is not “an inspiring story of triumph” over disability, although it did require a lot of work.
Slowly, McMorland says, after college, he got more involved in community organizing. He recognized the Thomas Merton Center’s name from protests against the Patriot Act and the Iraq War and successfully applied for a part-time community organizer position there in 2014. He went full-time in 2016 and became the center’s director in June 2017.
“The Merton Center has always been really meaningful to a lot of people and brought a lot of people together to do things or make connections between people or been a vehicle for them to do impactful stuff,” McMorland says.
Some of the organization’s recent campaigns that McMorland has found particularly meaningful include Bring Martin Home, a campaign against the deportation of a local community member; the successful Don’t Criminalize Transit Riders campaign, which overturned a proposal to place armed police officers on transit vehicles; and actions against wage theft, “some successful and some not.”
“But whether I talk to people from five years ago or 10 years ago or 30 years ago, everyone has a completely different view of what [the Merton Center] is and what's going on,” McMorland says. He describes the 50-year fixture of the white progressive activist community in Pittsburgh as “a big story that everyone’s just seen part of.”
As a robustly multi-generational group, the Thomas Merton Center offers something unique in the Pittsburgh activist community, McMorland says.
“There's something really beautiful and powerful about having multi-generational friendships where people who are older than you are modeling how to be curious and open and continuing to grow throughout your whole life. That's what I want to do. And I realize now that I'm going to always need multi-generational, older friends. I'm always going to need some friends in the generation older than me to help me do that,” McMorland says, adding that the center has also offered opportunities to connect with younger people.
However, something he’s noticed in progressive spaces, in general, is that multi-generational interpersonal conflicts can often be framed as “a generational thing,” when they are actually about decreasing tolerance for oppressive ideas.
He says he can already see the difference between what was acceptable in the 1990s when he was in high school and today. “A lot of the time,” he suggests, “what we might perceive as intergenerational conflict is actually about racism or homophobia or these things where people actually were bringing up those problems, you know, generations ago and just weren't being heard.” He says those conflicts can feel new when they emerge today, but they’re not.
“I don't see that as generational conflict. I see that as we're all, society-wide, part of a pretty big reckoning about some problems that people have been bringing up for generations and other people have been telling them to wait their turn, and there's not really a lot more time to wait.”
In the summer of 2020, as people across the country rallied against police violence and for racial justice, the Merton Center had its own multi-generational reckoning with anti-Black racism. Rush, TMC’s founder and previous board member, posted a meme on Facebook with an image of Martin Luther King Jr. and the text, “Looted nothing, Burned nothing, Attacked no one, Changed the World.” According to Tony Norman’s retelling for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, comments quickly appeared, mostly from younger activists, criticizing Rush for allegedly passing judgment on the behavior of Black communities terrorized by police violence. Rush apologized, but continued to receive criticism. “Molly [Rush], a naive user of Facebook, saw a meme that, on the spur of the moment, she decided to repost,” wrote Dan Kovalik in his book, The Progressive Case Against Cancel Culture.
That wasn’t how McMorland saw Rush’s actions, telling Norman, “After we make mistakes, we have a chance to restore balance and move towards repair. Mobilizing your network to demand that a predominantly white organization you founded takes your side in a public debate you started with Black activists is not a constructive follow-up to a mistake.”
For McMorland, it’s important for the Merton Center and other predominantly white community groups to do more “to support Black-led organizations, but also Black-led actions, Black-led uprisings, Black-led movements, Black communities. It doesn't matter if they have a 501(c)(3) or a website.”
“We're a really segregated city with some of the worst outcomes in the country for Black people in, like, almost any way you assess it,” he notes.
McMorland says that while “there's always been some people of color making really valuable contributions and in leadership” at the Merton Center, the members, including McMorland, have always been majority white. “I think whenever there's any organization like that, especially when it's doing community work, or social justice work, you have to look at like, ‘OK, how do we move with self-awareness? How do we stay accountable to people? How do we leverage our privileges in a good way?’”
“There’s room for everyone in the movement, but people have to do it right,” McMorland tells City Paper on how the Center can stay accountable.
The future of TMC will feature more antiracist work, McMorland says, including an expansion of their white accomplice trainings and the Drop Colcom campaign, which focuses on pressing local groups to stop accepting funding from Colcom, a local foundation that donates the majority of its funding to anti-immigrant groups. Although TMC has recently moved from Penn Avenue in Garfield to Community Forge in Wilkinsburg, McMorland says they will continue to house the community-run East End Community Thrift, affectionately called Thrifty, in their current Penn Avenue location, which TMC owns. They are currently raising funds to repair Thrifty’s building.
“We’re gonna hire someone to replace me,” McMorland says, “and they’re gonna do great things. I have a lot of faith in the board and the community of volunteers, staff, and members.”
Looking to the future of the fight for collective liberation, McMorland says, “I don’t want to come across as though I have some kind of profound answer” to the political obstacles facing Pittsburgh activists. But McMorland says he’s skeptical of liberal rhetoric calling for “unity” from progressives. He says we have “to make sure that when we're saying ‘we need unity’ that that doesn't really just mean we need silence from people [on our side] who are having real problems.”
“I've had a lot of conversations with people where they say something like, ‘Oh, if only we on the left were as unified as the right,’ And it's, like, well, it's easy for them to be unified when they're fascist,” he says. “The way to work together and the way to build a movement isn't going to look like what we're seeing from the very dangerous and resurgent right-wing,” he says. “[T]here's not a version of unity that looks like that for people with progressive or humanitarian values, because we're not trying to create the dominance of one group of people over everyone else.”
McMorland adds that a progressive version of unity has to bring growth, balance, and honesty.
“We need to figure out something that hasn’t been done before.” He pauses and corrects himself. “Well, something I haven’t seen before, maybe it’s been done before.”
Thomas Merton Center. thomasmertoncenter.org