Born in New York City in 1950 and raised in the Manhattan suburb of New Rochelle, Gerald Kellman was a confirmed political activist by the time he entered college: “I went to the University of Wisconsin [UW] to major in student protesting,” he says wryly. One of Kellman's crusades at UW was to lead student rallies in opposition to mandatory ROTC orientations. Toward the end of the Sixties, Kellman transferred to Reed College in Portland, Oregon for a brief period before settling in Chicago in 1970 to study community organizing at the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), a school established by the famed Saul Alinsky.
At IAF, Kellman was trained to analyze the tactics and strategies by which political, social, and economic power can be obtained, and he subsequently used this knowledge in his battles against the mortgage banking industry in Chicago’s predominantly black West Side.
Within a few years, however, Kellman grew weary of organizing and returned to school, obtaining a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University in 1980 and then going through 18 months of postgraduate studies in public policy at the University of Chicago.
In 1982 Kellman again took up community organizing, training staff members for the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), a church-based initiative designed to bring political power and leftwing values to Chicago's growing Hispanic community.
Sometime between 1983 and 1985, Kellman left UNO to take a job with the Calumet Community Religious Conference (CCRC), which sought the assistance of black churches in Chicago’s economically depressed South Side to help local residents gain political and economic influence. At the time, CCRC was running an inner-city operation known as the Developing Communities Project (DCP), headquartered in the rectory of Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Roseland. Kellman became DCP's executive director, a post in which his immediate aim was to use the “social justice” teachings of leftwing Catholicism to bring radical politics to black churches. Thinking that it would be useful to employ an African American organizer to whom local residents and ministers could better relate, Kellman in 1985 hired a 24-year-old Barack Obama. During his three-year tenure with DCP, Obama grew to regard Kellman as “a friend and a mentor.”
In the 1990s Kellman again decided to leave organizing in order to pursue other interests. In 1997 he received a master’s degree in divinity from Loyola University-Chicago. He then began working for churches, leading retreats, and, according to a University of Illinois publication, “preaching about changing hearts to transform society.” Kellman went on to become the adult formation director of St. Mary of the Woods Catholic Church in Chicago, a position he holds to this day.
In 2008 Kellman worked on Barack Obama's presidential campaign. “It was a privilege to help with this campaign,” said Kellman. “I wanted him to win.”