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No one would confuse Jack Welch with Wing Lam. Welch, the recently retired chairman of General Electric, has just published a best seller explaining some of the techniques that made him the most successful business executive of his generation.

Lam, 52, is the executive director of the Chinese Staff and Workers' Association of New York City, an organization he started when he was 30 to protect the rights of his fellow immigrants and battle the restaurants, clothing manufacturers and corrupt unions who were exploiting them in sweatshop conditions.

It is the oddball notion of the Ford Foundation that entrepreneurs such as Lam who create grass roots groups that tackle tough social problems are as valuable to this country -- and have as much to teach -- as the most creative economic innovators.

And so this weekend, 32 such activists, the leaders of 20 diverse organizations, will meet for the first time in a Tarrytown, N.Y., conference center in the first of a series of meetings where they will share experiences and discuss how others can achieve similar success. The 20 winning groups -- each of which received a $100,000 grant to advance its work -- were selected from a pool of 3,000 nominees. I heard about Ford's "leadership for a changing world" awards from my friend David Cohen, a longtime activist who heads the Washington-based Advocacy Institute, a resource group for human rights organizations. The Advocacy Institute and New York University are Ford's partners in this project.

Cohen and I were in the audience recently when Joyce Ladner of the Brookings Institution talked about her book, "The New Urban Leaders," a portrait of some of the notable figures in the community organization world. As she said, these are people who "do not write off poverty communities as either hopeless or helpless."

The men and women she writes about and those that Ford are honoring are extraordinary for their courage and their leadership skills. When I talked with Lam, for example, he told me in halting English how he had encouraged the waiters in the restaurant where he was working to file a grievance against the owner, who was confiscating their tips. That small victory led to campaigns in the garment industry and construction trades. Lam now has an organization with 1,000 members, working on housing and day care and other issues.

When the World Trade Center attack devastated the economy of nearby Chinatown, Lam's group stepped in to distribute food and provide translators to help immigrant workers obtain emergency aid.

His is only one of many compelling stories among the Ford honorees. Ruth Wise was raised by her grandparents on Virginia's Eastern Shore, an enclave of about 300 African Americans living in shacks with no indoor plumbing. She managed to get out and earn a college degree, but after a 17-year absence, she moved back and led her neighbors in a successful fight for a sewer system, new housing and economic development. She told me she was "kind of shocked" at the award, but already has plans for leveraging the money into a community center with a small chapel, medical offices and a gym.

Kevin McDonald, a onetime alcohol and drug abuser, has created a residential community on a former dairy farm outside Durham, N.C., where 300 recovering addicts live for up to two years, receiving therapy and working for the group. The moving company and home-repair firm staffed by the patients bring in enough money to make the program 90 percent self-supporting, McDonald told me.

Bill Rauch, a gay man and Harvard graduate, founded the Cornerstone Theater in Los Angeles, and for 15 years has traveled the country launching community theater groups that bring together isolated or hostile populations for the shared experience of creating dramas. Rauch told me about a racially integrated "Romeo and Juliet" in Port Gibson, Miss., and said the award will help finance the latest project, a series of church-based theater productions designed to bring a mixture of people of all faiths into mosques, churches and temples.

None of these folks will match Welch's salary or renown. But they need take a back seat to no one in building this country.

Washington Post Writers Group

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