Obama And Community Organizing

To paraphrase the only bad Godfather movie: “Just when I thought I was out . . .NYCO drags me back in.”

In the comments on one of my prior posts on the Republican party’s “Organizergate” , NYCO (“the ace of the Upstate bloggers”) posted an interesting link to a New Republic story entitled “Creation Myth”, the sub headline is “What Barack Obama wont tell you about his community organizing past.”

The jist of the article is that Barack Obama, despite the use of his past as a community organizer as a positive talking point in his life story, had actually turned against organizing and questioned its ability to create meaningful change. The article is well written and brings up many valid points. However, I do not believe that the article supports the basic thesis. Obama still believes in organizing, despite his choice to move into the political arena. Obama the politician is a reflection of Obama the organizer, he is not as the article’s author John B. Judis writes “a disillusioned activist who fashioned his political identity not as an extension of community organizing but as a wholesale rejection of it.”

Yes, Obama sounded depressed and burned out when he ended his organizing career and headed off to Harvard Law School. Show me an organizer that has not dealt with the frustration over the glacial pace of change in community organizing and I will show you a neophyte. I have been an organizer in Syracuse for nearly 15 years and have written before about this form of an organizer’s blues:

Baby boomers such as myself (and later generations as well, I guess) are particularly prone to these demons. The world has revolved around our desires and wishes for so long that we naturally assume that state of affairs will follow us into our chosen careers–even the world changing biz. Prior generations understood that change may be imperceptible and may never be witnessed by those currently struggling. The cumulative struggle of generations may finally lead to the tipping point where rapid and final change may occur, like the drops of water wearing away the stone. However, individuals are largely single revolutionary digits, contributing their labor to something they cannot control. Spirituals and folk songs spoke to that understanding and gave support and strength to those in the fight.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said it in his final speech I’ve Been To The Mountaintop:
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! “

But Judis goes further than citing Obama’s burnout and frustration. He writes that Obama rejected some of the basic tenents of organizing, those set down by Saul Alinsky, the acknowledged originator of community organizing tactics and philosophy: Judis writes of a talk that Obama delivered a during a roundtable discussion at the Woods Foundation, a major funder of organizing activity in Chicago. Judis characterizes Obama’s talk as a rejection of the guiding principles of organizing. Obama stated that organizers often got lost in the prosaic details of fighting for victories in the community–getting a stop sign for a dangerous corner, paving streets etc. What gets lost is the ability to convert these victories into a powerful organization that will pursue a larger vision of social change. He also discussed organizers suspicions of charismatic leaders (often religious leaders) and working explicitly on political issues.

What Judis fails to understand is that community organizing has a long history of analyzing its basic functions and debating the effectiveness of its activities. You can’t have a discussion amongst veteran organizers without the phrase “Post-Alinsky” coming up. A profession that was created in the 1930’s and 1940’s cannot survive without questioning its founding assumptions.

Professional community organizing has attempted to deal with fighting for more visionary change by linking up together in networks of organizations, pulling together the efforts of small groups to make a bigger impact. The National People’s Action network (of which SUN is a proud member) created the Community Reinvestment Act and got it passed by Congress, leading to billions of dollars and new branch banks for underserved communities across the nation. The Industrial Areas Foundation, founded by Saul Alinsky, designed and kicked off the Living Wage movement. How’s that for vision?

There are networks like these all across the nation, all struggling to design an organizing model that will best represent their communities and win power for their supporters. The Gamaliel and PICO networks organize within faith organizations (as did Obama with a Gamaliel group in Chicago) and have their share of charismatic leaders. Many other groups do political work, trying to do voter registration and issue lobbying, all while staying away from the partisan work that their 501 (c) 3 IRS non-profit tax status forbids them from undertaking. The Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO) explicitly organizes around racial and ethnic identity, a direct departure from traditional Alinsky-style organzing that, in its attempted to be color blind, often downplayed the plight of marginalized and oppressed minorities.

Obama clearly hasn’t given up on organizing, he’s found a way to incorporate organizing principles into political campaigning–witness his social networking website and his organizing training (dubbed Camp Obama) for all of his campaign staff. But perhaps most telling is the effect that his promotion of community organizing on the campaign trail has had on young people across the country. As Professor Peter Dreier of Occidental College writes on the Huffington Post:

Through his constant references to his own organizing experience, and his persistent praise for organizers at every campaign stop, Obama is helping recruit a new wave of idealistic young Americans who want to bring about change. According to surveys and exit polls, interest in politics and voter turnout among the millennial generation (18-29) has increased dramatically this year. But Obama isn’t just catalyzing young people to vote or volunteer for his campaign. Professors report that a growing number of college students are taking courses in community organizing and social activism. According to community organizing groups, unions and environmental groups, the number of young people seeking jobs as organizers has spiked in the past year in the wake of Obama’s candidacy.


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