Danilo Dolci

Hailed as the “Sicilian Gandhi,” Danilo Dolci was born at Sesana, near Trieste, in 1924, son of a Sicilian father and a Slovenian mother. By the time of his death, in 1997, he had seen the face of Sicily change considerably, and could justly recognize his own contributions to the process. Into the 1970s, he was the single most important force for improvement in horrendous social conditions rooted in centuries of exploitation by ruthless landlords, dishonest government officials, corrupt police and, worst of all, the omnipresent black hand of the Mafia.

Raised in Fascist Italy, Danilo Dolci studied architecture and engineering and was a promising student. He was not very “political” in the sense of being associated with a particular political party, but as a young man was arrested by northern Italy’s Fascists (of Mussolini’s Republic of Sale) for tearing down Fascist propaganda posters. It was l943, and he refused to enlist in the doomed army of the Republic of Salo. This was one of the first clear indications that Dolci detested violence in any form.

Despite widespread public impressions, he was neither a Communist nor overtly anti-clerical. He was an activist, pure and simple. Following the war, he initially supported some charities sponsored by the Catholic Church. He had been to Sicily briefly in the early l94Os, when his father worked for the railroad here. But it was during a subsequent visit to Sicily’s Greek archeological sites that he became acutely aware of what can only be described as squalid rural poverty. The young Dolci sought to address problems that few others were willing even to recognize, much less confront. In the 1950s, despite continuing mass emigration from northern Italy as well as Sicily, it took courage to write about the nation’s failure to provide opportunities for its least fortunate citizens, or a self-governing region’s abuse of public funds literally stolen by politicians associated directly with the Mafia. Yet, Dolci did so with eloquence, despite constant threats from corrupt law-enforcement authorities.

Dolci’s social center attracted attention on a global scale, prompting many to compare him to Martin Luther King. Like Doctor King, Dolci was a charismatic character whose movement appealed to socially-conscious young people around the World, some of whom came to Sicily to work with him. Yet, Dolci’s blunt, pragmatic message was rarely a convenient or flattering one.
As a humanitarian, he created public works programs, investigated public corruption and generally assisted the poorest people of northwestern Sicily, attempting to improve their living conditions while using Partinico and Trappeto as his main bases. The Jato Dam was one such project.

Dolci published extensively and brought popular attention to the humblest citizens of a very slowly evolving society, earning praise around the world. Danilo Dolci was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize and was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize, the funds from which were used to establish a string of social centers to address the needs of poor families. Among those who publicly voiced support for his efforts were Carlo Levi, Erich Fromm, Bertrand Russell, Jean Piaget, Aldous Huxley, Jean-Paul Sartre and Ernst Bloch. Dolci was twice married and had several children. Sicilian Lives remains his best-known book, while one of the best biographical works about him is American author Gerry Magione’s A Passion for Sicilians.

March 2013