During the Republicans’ wretched convention they launched a foolish attack against Barack Obama’s experience as a community organizer. Response to these ignorant tirades has included reactions from those who have worked their whole lives to help the less advantaged – namely community organizers. Why would the Republicans spend a whole night of their convention attacking ordinary people? With the nation watching, the Republicans mocked, dismissed, and actually laughed out loud at Americans who engage in community service and organizing.
During my Ph.D. program in Rural Sociology I studied community development (organization). During the past two decades I have worked with groups of farmers, citizens and others to organize their efforts to make improvements in environmental quality, economic development, and social justice. These are clearly the types of efforts we need to give a higher priority if we really want to improve our nation and the world. In this article I document the reaction to this attack on community organizers and explain the kinds of important work that they do. It will also be clear why Barack’s experience as a community organizer will be the key to success his of his GRASS ROOTS campaignin November.
Tennessee Rep. Steve Cohen riled Republicans Wednesday after he compared Barack Obama to Jesus Christ and suggested Sarah Palin is akin to Pontius Pilate. The Tennessee Democrat, who supports Obama, was on the House floor giving a one-minute speech when he offered the comparisons. “If you want change, you want the Democratic Party,” Cohen said. “Barack Obama was a community organizer like Jesus, who our minister prayed about. Pontius Pilate was a governor.” A similar statement has been circulating in e-mails and on blogs in recent days, before Cohen spoke Wednesday. But Cohen was referencing shots Palin took at Obama during her address last week at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. Palin, a former mayor, poked fun at Obama for crediting his work as a community organizer, saying, “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities.”
In a basement conference room at the Codman Square Health Center yesterday morning, Lew Finfer did what he’s been doing for almost four decades: community organizing. This time that meant leading a meeting of 20 representatives of grass-roots and nonprofit organizations from Dorchester and Mattapan to mobilize city residents against a ballot question that would abolish the state’s personal income tax.
Finfer’s profession took center stage at the Republican convention in St. Paul this week when Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, the vice presidential nominee, and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani mocked Democrat Barack Obama’s experience as a community organizer in Chicago. “Community organizer,” Guiliani shrugged. “What?” Palin likened her former job as mayor of an Anchorage suburb to being “sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities.”
With that, Palin and Giuliani ridiculed a tradition whose roots in this country reach back to the Boston Tea Party and organizers’ successful efforts to persuade colonists to boycott tea to protest taxation without representation. ACORN, a nationwide network of community organizations, issued a statement condemning the GOP’s “condescending remarks.” Anti-Palin T-shirts emblazoned with “Jesus was a community organizer; Pontius Pilate was a governor” appeared for sale online almost immediately.
Community organizers in Boston and beyond have taken offense at the barbs from St. Paul. “You get angry that somebody is disrespectful of what you’ve done all your life,” said Finfer, director of the Massachusetts Community Action Network. “Community organizing is what the civil rights movement was. The key people were community organizers who worked for Martin Luther King Jr. and with him. Sarah Palin held up that her husband was a union member. Unions have organizers.”
“Without organizers things don’t happen,” said Marvin Martin, 54, director of Dorchester’s Greater Four Corners Action Coalition. “Ideas often come from the community. People who organize bring ideas to the legislators and work with them to pass it. If they don’t understand that, I’m concerned with how they make decisions.” Marshall Ganz, a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, sees an irony in Palin’s remark. “The very politics that Palin and McCain have rooted their appeal in are the result of a social movement on the right, the conservative movement, which was organized by organizers, too,” he said.
To Finfer and his colleagues, organizing entails reaching out to members of disenfranchised communities, learning about them and their issues, then mobilizing and empowering them to address those issues. “The ability of a community to survive and understand its power and make changes happen is the responsibility of the community organization,” said Dawn Nardi, 35, lead organizer with United Interfaith Action in Fall River. While Finfer was meeting on the “Vote No on Question 1” campaign, community organizing of a different sort was occurring on Perrin Street in Roxbury. In a demonstration called by City Life/Vida Urbana, 50 people tried to block an eviction. Police arrested four protesters who chained themselves to a railing.
Mark Pedulla, manager of organizing and policy initiatives of the Hyde Square Task Force in Jamaica Plain, works on youth organizing. “Organizers stand with people at the most difficult moments of their lives, whether that’s a job loss, an eviction, youth violence,” he said. Behind the comments of Palin and Giuliani is Obama himself and the attention to community organizing generated by his candidacy. “It’s very emotional for me to hear him talk about being an organizer,” said Nardi, the community organizer in Fall River.
Perhaps more important than the attention is Obama’s use of grass-roots organizing. The Kennedy School’s Ganz, whose resume includes community organizing in the civil rights and farm workers’ movements, is helping Obama’s campaign train workers in community organizing. Ganz predicts Palin’s comment will backfire. “One thing it’s done is galvanize a reaction from grassroots organizers all over the country like I’ve never seen,” he said. “These are the people who are going to organize the vote for Obama.”
Slowly, slowly, I am recovering from the extremely effective bilge festival staged by the Republicans last night. And while there is much to discuss, there was one item, in particular, that has to be considered infuriating: the attack on Barack Obama’s service as a community organizer by the odious Rudy Giuliani–he’s come to look like a villain in a Frank Capra movie, hasn’t he? This morning, I received a press release from a group called Catholic Democrats about the work–the mission, the witness–that Obama performed after he got out of college. Here’s the first paragraph:
“Catholic Democrats is expressing surprise and shock that Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech tonight mocked her opponent’s work in the 1980s for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. She belittled Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s experience as a community organizer in Catholic parishes on the South Side of Chicago, work he undertook instead of pursuing a lucrative career on Wall Street. In her acceptance speech, Ms. Palin said, ‘I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities.’ Community organizing is at the heart of Catholic Social Teaching to end poverty and promote social justice. “
So here is what Giuliani and Palin didn’t know: Obama was working for a group of churches that were concerned about their parishioners, many of whom had been laid off when the steel mills closed on the south side of Chicago. They hired Obama to help those stunned people recover and get the services they needed–job training, help with housing and so forth–from the local government. It was, dare I say it, the Lord’s work–the sort of mission Jesus preached (as opposed to the war in Iraq, which Palin described as a “task from God.”)
This is what Palin and Giuliani were mocking. They were making fun of a young man’s decision “to serve a cause greater than himself,” in the words of John McCain. They were, therefore, mocking one of their candidate’s favorite messages. Obama served the poor for three years, then went to law school. To describe this service–the first thing he did out of college, the sort of service every college-educated American should perform, in some form or other–as anything other than noble is cheap and tawdry and cynical in the extreme.
Perhaps La Pasionaria of the Northern Slope didn’t know this when she read the words they gave her. But Giuliani–a profoundly lapsed Catholic, who must have met more than a few religious folk toiling in the inner cities–should have known. (“I don’t even know what that is,” he sneered.”) What a shameful performance.
Amy Chozick of the Wall Street Journal reports from Lebanon, Va., on the presidential race.
Democrats are asking Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin: What would Jesus do? The Alaska governor, a Christian, has come under fire for criticizing community organizers, but according to labor leader Cecil Roberts, Jesus was a community organizer. “I used to be a community organizer and I’m in good company,” Roberts said as he introduced Barack Obama at a town hall event here Tuesday night. “Martin Luther King was a community organizer. Listen, Sarah, Moses was a community organizer and yes, Jesus was a community organizer.”
Obama’s Community Roots By David Moberg
This article appeared in the April 16, 2007 edition of The Nation. April 3, 2007
In 1985, freshly graduated from Columbia University and working for a New York business consultant, Barack Obama decided to become a community organizer. Though he liked the idea, he didn’t understand what the job involved, and his inquiries turned up few opportunities. Then he got a call from Jerry Kellman, an organizer working on Chicago’s far South Side for a community group based in the churches of the region, an expanse of white, black and Latino blue-collar neighborhoods that were reeling from the steel-mill closings. Kellman was looking for an organizer for the new Developing Communities Project (DCP), which would focus on black city neighborhoods.
Obama, only 24, struck board members as “awesome” and “extremely impressive,” and they quickly hired him, at $13,000 a year, plus $2,000 for a car–a beat-up blue Honda Civic, which Obama drove for the next three years organizing more than twenty congregations to change their neighborhoods. Despite some meaningful victories, the work of Obama–and hundreds of other organizers–did not transform the South Side or restore lost industries. But it did change the young man who became the junior senator from Illinois in 2004, and it provides clues to his worldview as he bids for the Democratic presidential nomination. …
After a transient youth and an earnest search for identity, Obama also found a home–a community with which he continued relationships, a church and a political identity. He honed his talent for listening, learned pragmatic strategy, practiced bringing varied people together and developed a faith in ordinary citizens that still influences his campaign message. He discovered the importance of personal storytelling in politics (and wrote short stories that refined his style). …
Obama worked in the organizing tradition of Saul Alinsky, who made Chicago the birthplace of modern community organizing, as translated through the Gamaliel Foundation, one of several networks of faith-based organizing. Often by confronting officials with insistent citizens–rather than exploiting personal connections, as traditional black Democrats proposed–Obama and DCP protected community interests regarding landfills and helped win employment training services, playgrounds, after-school programs, school reforms and other public amenities. …
But Obama grew restless and eventually went to Harvard Law School. “He said you can only go so far in organizing. You help people get some solutions, but it’s never as big as wiping away problems,” says Michael Evans, a DCP organizer after Obama left. “It wasn’t end-all. He wanted to be part of the end-all, to get things done.” But Obama kept his ties to DCP and worked out of its office when he ran a drive that registered 150,000 new voters in 1992 and became the springboard for his own grassroots campaign for Illinois State Senate.
Obama’s politics of transcendent unity, which has appealed to many voters, has its roots in his work as a “bridge builder,” in the words of the Rev. Anthony Van Zanten, overcoming the gulf within DCP between Catholic and Protestant churches. But this vision of harmony also reflects Obama’s distaste for conflict. “Personality-wise, Barack did not like direct confrontation,” Kellman says. “He was a very nice young man, very polite. It was a stretch for him to do Alinsky techniques. He was more comfortable in dialogue with people. But challenging power was not an issue for him. Lack of civility was.”
Obama’s organizing history may give few clues about what policies he would pursue as President, but Obama the presidential candidate still shows his roots–a faith in ordinary citizens, a quest for common ground and a pragmatic inclination toward defining issues in winnable ways. Even when Obama was an organizer, Augustine-Herron told him he would be the nation’s first black President. Now the Rev. Alvin Love, whom Obama recruited to DCP, looks at his candidacy and says, “Everything I see reflects that community organizing experience. I see the consensus-building, his connection to people and listening to their needs and trying to find common ground. I think at his heart Barack is a community organizer. I think what he’s doing now is that. It’s just a larger community to be organized.”
Community organizing brings people together to create social change. Why is community organizing so important? Because social change takes place, and is more effective, when people work together in an organized way. This gives us the power we need to achieve the changes we want. There is more than one way to organize. People choose the methods that make the most sense to them and seem most likely to achieve their goals. Here are seven basic principles to follow in building a movement for social change:
- Nonviolence – Preventing or minimizing violence against ourselves, each other, our communities, and the environment.
- Social Transformation – Identifying and addressing the root causes of problems and creating solutions that truly make things better for all groups in society.
- Organizing – Offering people the opportunity and support to work with others on the problems they face.
- Economic Equality – Putting basic human needs first; insuring that all have enough before any get much more;
- Direct Democracy – Giving people the power to control their own lives, and maximizing their access to the decision-making processes that affect them.
- Social Equality – Promoting participation and leadership especially for those who have experienced discrimination in society.
- Environmental Sustainability – Producing internally and promoting externally a cleaner and safer natural environment more in balance with nature.
It’s easy to feel discouraged, but organizing can be an empowering and rewarding experience. In a true democracy, people would have a real voice in the decisions affecting their lives. Politics would be a dynamic, active, creative process in which people participated meaningfully. Governments and corporations would be directly accountable to the people they affect.
The changes that have most improved peoples’ lives in this century were not gifts given to us by “experts,” but the hard-won results of organizing by “ordinary” people. The 40-hour work week was not made by wealthy industrialists, but by union organizers sick of working 60 hour weeks for low wages; the vote — and rights to property and abortion — were not granted to women by men, but won by female activists over many decades of struggle. Similar victories have been won by people who are discriminated against because of their race or class, their physical abilities, their sexual orientation, or other factors.
When we act as individuals our actions may seem small and unimportant. But when we act collectively in our community – neighborhood, workplace, school, small town, county, state, bioregion, wherever our community exists – anything is possible. Making the decision to participate in public life is no small thing. It demands commitment, sacrifice, and an openness to change. But the rewards are many: new skills, a sense of purpose, work that’s enjoyable and meaningful, awareness of how our society operates, and a feeling of community that comes from working together with others for the vision of a better world.
Community organizing helps to bring out many voices to add collective power and strength to an issue. Community organizing is a key part of an overall strategy to make changes in a community that are widely felt, and that reflect the wishes of the people who are directly affected by alcohol-related community problems. This requires the organizer to not only listen and be responsive to the community, but also to help community residents develop the skills necessary to address their own issues in an ongoing way.
Community organizing looks at collective solutions — large numbers of people who engage in solutions that impact even more people. These people usually live in the same neighborhood, town or block. Many traditional agency responses look at individual solutions. Agencies tend to focus on the individual as a means to solve public health problems. Community organizing changes the balance of power and creates new power bases. Groups that organize do not have to be statewide or national in scope, nor do the decision-makers have to be elected officials. Here are some examples from history:
- Civil rights: The boycotts of businesses and busses in the South brought about desegregation and the Voting Rights Act.
- Labor unions: Strikes against conditions in factories throughout the early part of this century led to the 40-hour work week and better working conditions for all workers.
- The anti-war movement: Protests against the war pressured the government to end U.S. involvement in Viet Nam.
Community organizers think strategically about their work while always keeping the final goal in mind and continually making contributions to the goal. This is especially important in community organizing campaigns to enact or change policies. According to Saul Alinsky (1971) these qualities include:
- Sense of Humor
- Blurred vision of a better world
- An organized personality
- Strong ego/sense of oneself
- A free, open mind, and political relativity
- Ability to create the new out of the old
CO is a values-based process by which people – most often low- and moderate-income people previously absent from decision-making tables – are brought together in organizations to jointly act in the interest of their “communities” and the common good. Ideally, in the participatory process of working for needed changes, people involved in CO organizations/groups learn how to take greater responsibility for the future of their communities, gain in mutual respect and achieve growth as individuals. Community organizers identify and attract the people to be involved in the organizations, and develop the leadership from and relationships among the people that make the organizations effective.
Typically, the actions taken by CO groups are preceded by careful data gathering, research and participatory strategic planning. The actions are often in the form of negotiations – with targeted institutions holding power – around issues determined by and important to the organizations. The CO groups seek policy and other significant changes determined by and responsive to the people (that is, their “constituencies”). Where good-faith negotiations fail, these constituency-led organizations seek to pressure the decision-makers – through a variety of means – so that the decision-makers will return to the negotiations and move to desired outcomes. CO groups continuously reflect on what they have learned in their action strategies and incorporate the learning in subsequent strategies.
Modern CO rests on a solid bed of key principles around which most knowledgeable practitioners and observers are in general agreement. The degree of adherence to these principles, and the relative emphasis placed on one principle or another, provides the best means to distinguish CO groups and efforts from each other. These same principles also help to distinguish CO from other types of strategies for neighborhood and community change and social betterment.
CO organizations seek to change policies and institutions that are not working. In many communities, they are the only force promoting institutional accountability and responsiveness. Because community organizations take critical positions, they can be viewed as partisan or even polarizing in some contexts, and an obstacle to social collaboration. However, research suggests that effective governance depends on “civicness” – not consensus. A critical stance may generate conflict, but it can also stimulate participation and sharpen political discourse in ways that lead to deeper forms of social collaboration.
The Roles and Responsibilities of Community Organizers
- Organizers challenge people to act on behalf of their common interests.
- Organizers empower people to act by developing shared relationships, understandings, and tasks which enable them to gain new resources, new understanding of their interests, and new capacity to use these resources on behalf of their interests.
- Organizers work through “dialogues” in relationships, understanding and action carried out as campaigns. They identify, recruit and develop leadership, they build community among that leadership, they build power out of that community.
- Organizers develop new relationships out of old ones – sometimes by linking one person to another and sometimes by linking whole networks of people together.
- Organizers deepen understanding by creating opportunities for people to deliberate with one another about their circumstances, to reinterpret these circumstances in ways that open up new possibilities for action, and to develop strategies and tactics that make creative use of the resources and opportunities that their circumstances afford.
- Organizers motivate people to act by creating experiences to challenge those feelings which inhibit action, such as fear, apathy, self-doubt, inertia and isolation with those feelings that support action such as anger, hope, self-worth, urgency and a sense of community. …
- Organizers work through campaigns. Campaigns are very highly energized, intensely focused, concentrated streams of activity with specific goals and deadlines. People are recruited, battles fought and organizations built through campaigns. Campaigns polarize by bringing out conflicts ordinarily submerged in a way contrary to the interests of the organizing constituency.
- Organizers build community by developing leadership. They focus on identifying leaders and enhancing their skills, values and commitments. They also focus on building strong communities: communities through which people can gain new understanding of their interests as well as power to act on them.
- Organizers work at constructing communities which are bounded yet inclusive, communal yet diverse. They work at developing a relationship between community and leadership based on mutual responsibility and accountability.
- Organizers must thoroughly understand the characteristics and the power patterns of the community through extensive interviews and discussions with community members. The organizer is a listener.
- Organizers identify and train potential leaders. These potential leaders are not necessarily the titular heads of organizations. Through an extensive listening process issues or problems of concern to the people are identified. People must be encouraged to talk about their views of the community and it is important that they realize that the organizer does not come with a preconceived program.
- Organizers must also be able to agitate people to act. Until the people recognize that it is they who must do something about their own problems, and that it is only THEY who can be trusted to do the right thing – and until they realize that only if they organize enough power in their community that something can be done about these things, nothing will get done.
The most advanced and highly regarded of CO organizations today work on a range of issues, are staffed, intend to be around for the long term, and are invested in building the capacity of their constituencies – often of many races and/or cultures – to address increasingly more difficult, complex and/or recalcitrant issues. Many CO groups also seek to contribute to the growth of a broad-based movement toward their vision for a more humane and just society, and may seek to model that vision in their internal structure and operations. Changes sought by CO organizations often require them to pursue collaborative efforts with other CO organizations, as well as with other types of groups, in order to effectively address issues at jurisdictional levels beyond the current scope of any one of the CO organizations. Most receive assistance from intermediary organizations that provide training, advice and resources.
QUOTES ABOUT COMMUNITY ORGANIZING
A single bracelet does not jingle. – African proverb
The community organizer…must constantly examine life, including his own, to get some idea of what it is all about, and he must challenge and test his own findings. Irreverence, essential to questioning, is a requisite. Curiosity becomes compulsive. His most frequent word is why? – Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, 1971
The soul of organizing is people. An organizer might be paid or work as a volunteer. The group could start as part of a master plan hatched in a smoke filled room or out of a ‘spontaneous’ community reaction to a crisis like a toxic waste dump. They might base their work on house by house prayer groups or cells of clandestine conspirators. The ultimate goal could be the preservation of Hopi language and culture or the overthrow of the real estate tax based system for financing public education. Organizers can differ on strategy, tactics, even on what seem to be base values. However, all organizers believe in people, in the ability of regular folks to guide their lives, to speak for themselves, to learn the world and how to make it better. – Dave Beckwith and Randy Stoeker
Achieving the long-term goals and specific concrete objectives of CO in and for a community of any size is challenging work, to say the least. A CO organization never starts with a level playing field. To develop, mature and succeed over time, it must constantly fight uphill battles. There is no roadmap to accomplishment. Resources are often in short supply. Risks are high. – The National Organizers Alliance: An Organization for Community Organizers
Power is the purpose of community organizing, and the issues, problems, strategies and victories are a means to the end of increased power for the organization and the community. – Dave Beckwith and Randy Stoeker
The empowerment process at the heart of CO promotes participation of people, organizations and communities toward the goals of increased individual and community control, political efficacy, improved quality of community life, and social justice.– Nina Wallerstein, American Journal of Health Promotion
Community organization is that process by which the people…organize themselves to ‘take charge’ of their situation and thus develop a sense of being a community together. It is a particularly effective tool for the poor and powerless as they determine for themselves the actions they will take to deal with the essential forces that are destroying their community and consequently causing them to be powerless. – Reverend Robert Linthicum, World Vision International
Organizing does two central things to seek to rectify the problem of power imbalance – it builds a permanent base of people power so that dominant financial and institutional power can be challenged and held accountable to values of greater social, environmental and economic justice; and, it transforms individuals and communities, making them mutually respectful co-creators of public life rather than passive objects of decisions made by others. – Mike Miller, Organize Training Center
“I have spoken of a thousand points of light, of all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good. We will work hand in hand, encouraging, sometimes leading, sometimes being led, rewarding.” George H.W. Bush 1/20/89