Founder and Consultant
John Calkins, founder and former Executive Director of the DART Center, grew up in Sugar Grove, Illinois. He went to Northwestern University for his undergraduate studies, and later went into the Peace Corps in 1965 as part of the fourth set of volunteers in the history of the program. He was placed in Niger in West Africa, where he worked to set up purchasing and crediting cooperatives revolving around cotton for regional African villages.
As a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in 1968, John was recruited to participate in a march led by Father James Groppi from Milwaukee to Madison to prevent cuts in basic welfare programs. John and his wife, Betsy – a fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteer – would drive out to meet participants walking in the march every day, march alongside with them, and then return back to school every night. John became the Head Organizer for the Wisconsin Welfare Rights Organization.
In 1974, John, his wife and two kids left for Cleveland where he been hired at the modest sum of $600 a month for six months to pull together a community organization. John met Herb White, a United Church of Christ Minister, during his time in Cleveland. Herb ultimately became John’s mentor and has played an instrumental role in developing and challenging John during the early stages of his career. Herb’s experiences with organizing and ministering to local congregations helped to crystallize much of the approach used in the formative years of DART. It was Herb White and a local sponsoring committee who originally invited John to Miami, Florida in 1977 to begin a local community organization, Concerned Seniors of Dade. John and the Concerned Seniors group quickly became known for routinely producing hundreds of people to city meetings to voice their opinions. Given the success of Concerned Citizens, Herb, along with Msgr. Bryan O. Walsh, Joe Mazanek, and Rev. J.W. Stepherson, further encouraged John and a colleague, Holly Holcombe, to form the DART Center and accept invitations to build new organizations throughout the state of Florida and beyond.
A three-day race riot that lit up the city of Miami in 1980 turned out to be another turning point in the history of DART. The riot broke out after an all-white jury acquitted four white Miami police officers of killing Arthur McDuffie, a black insurance salesman, whom they had mortally beaten with flashlights and nightsticks. Eighteen people died during the ensuing rioting and more than $100 million was lost in property damage. The officers’ acquittal and the devastation left behind by the riots angered and shocked all those involved with Concerned Seniors. It seemed everyone was looking for a way to do something. John along with others led an organizing drive among African American congregations throughout Miami-Dade County, eventually forming People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality (PULSE). After winning several local issues related to minority hiring and job creation, a leader from PULSE challenged the organization to deal with the continued lack of accountability for police officers involved in several killings of African Americans in the 1980s in Miami. When formal charges were made against the officers in question, they were acquitted of wrongdoing in court. After a series of cases, it became apparent that the attorneys for the police were able to create an unlevel playing field by striking African Americans from the jury pools using peremptory challenges. Ultimately, PULSE prevailed at the state level making it illegal to use peremptory challenges based on race.
After PULSE, John began organizing Justice for All in Broward (JAB), and ultimately those involved began to see the state of Florida as fertile grounds for a network of local community organizations. In 1982, the DART Center was founded to answer invitations to build community organizations. Originally, the notion was to build a statewide network of local organizations in Florida, but when people from outside the state attended DART trainings, invitations to work elsewhere came into DART’s office and were accepted.
John served as DART’s Executive Director from 1982 until 2013 when he retired.