Community Organizing and the Presidential Election: One Commentator Finally Gets it More or Less Right

Lots of bloviating on community organizing has occurred on cable news shows and in various newspaper opinion pieces in recent months due to Senator Barack Obama’s background as a “community organizer.” Regardless of what Senator Obama did as a community organizer, almost all of the commentary is wrong. A good example is Peter Applebome’s New York Times piece, Feeling the Sting of Republican Barbs in which he describes community organizers as more or less social workers or case managers. But any community organizer worth his salt who came across a low-income person facing eviction would never fool around with trying to solve the individual’s problem. Rather, the organizer would try to identify the person’s and their neighbors’ self-interest to organize around the problem and thus help the community find an overall solution, while building an organizational structure for further efforts.

Unlike Mr. Applebome’s assertions, community organizing is also neither Democratic nor Republican, but is largely apolitical, since it is by definition in opposition to the power structure presumably oppressing the target community. In fact, Saul Alinsky,* the founder of the field, spent most of his life fighting Chicago’s Democratic machine politics. Given the fact that most cities are controlled by Democratic administrations these days, an active community organizer would probably be more likely to battle Democrats than Republicans. Remember that community organizers work on tangible local problems, not grandiose social policy issues.

Hey Sarah—Organize This is another inaccurate piece on community organizing. This one is by Thomas Geoghegan and appeared in Slate. Mr. Geoghegan takes Governor Sarah Palin to task for making fun of community organizers. Leaving aside the politics, community organizers must have very thick skins and good senses of humor and are unlikely to be terribly worried about verbal insults. What caught my attention, however, was the author’s startling claim that “Organizers break laws if they have to. Mayors believe in order.” As a former community organizer, I can attest that organizers try very hard not to break laws because this is exactly what politicians want them to do in order to discredit the organization they are building. Also, politicians have their hands on the levers of power (e.g., police, building inspectors, etc.) and can easily apply legal pressure if the community organizer encourages law breaking. Rather, a good community organizer uses clever civil disobedience within the framework of laws, depending on mayors and other power brokers to themselves break the law by overreacting. Most community organizing strategies are based on the assumption that politicians and their bureaucratic minions will overreact and break the law one way or another. In other words, Mr. Geoghegan got it just backwards. He says he’s never been an organizer, but has “known some,” apparently making him qualified enough to comment. This would be like me opining on the work of circus clowns just because I ran into a guy with bright orange hair, a bulbous red nose and size 22 floppy shoes at a cocktail party one night.

I am going on and on about community organizing mainly because I am so surprised to find the topic suddenly popular due to Senator Obama having captured the imagination of Americans with tales of community organizing on Chicago’s Southside. I have a fondness for the Southside because I received some community organizing training there many years ago, and, more recently, have written lots of funded proposals for a large nonprofit that serves the community. Faithful readers will know from posts like my first, They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal, and Déjà vu All Over Again—Vacant Houses and What Not to Do About Them, that I began my career as a community organizer in 1972 in the North Minneapolis ghetto. While community organizing had a certain cachet among us college student save-the-world types in the early 1970s, the whole concept seemed to have been lost in the mists of time until Barack Obama burst on the scene. Thus, I find myself waxing euphoric about my halcyon days in organizing.

Senator Obama and I appear to have at least one thing in common, having both been trained in Saul Alinksy style community organizing.* While I am unsure about Senator Obama’s actual training, I was fortunate to have learned from an affiliate of Alinksy’s Industrial Areas Foundation, which then existed in St. Paul, and I also attended some Alinsky training on Chicago’s Southside. So, I’m about as familiar with community organizing as anyone, having not only been trained, but also actually organized some pretty interesting stuff, including a Vacant Housing Task Force, self-help seminars for low-income homeowners and tenants, and a nonprofit cooperative hardware store that operated for a time in North Minneapolis. Not bad for a long-haired 21-year-old college student who was naive enough to think that he could use community organizing techniques to overcome just about anything.

Given the spectacular misrepresentations of community organizing in the popular media during this election cycle that I note briefly above, it was refreshing to open the New York Times on Sunday morning and finally find an opinion piece by Deepak Bhargava, Organizing Principles, which more or less got it right. Mr. Bhargava says:

It’s important to emphasize that organizers like Mr. Espey aren’t there to solve people’s problems for them — they’re there to teach people how to help themselves: to learn how to speak in public, to run a meeting, or to hold their own in a negotiation with an employer, a landlord or a policy maker. Organizers teach people to work with — and challenge — politicians of every party.”

I’ve never run across Mr. Bhargava before, but he understands community organizers and community organizing. I have no idea what, if anything, Senator Obama accomplished as a community organizer, since I’ve never read about any specific accomplishments. I assume, however, he must have organized something. Community organizers are goal oriented, and, as I noted briefly above, I know exactly what I organized during my time as a community organizer. It is likely that this aspect of community organizing—wanting to achieve a discrete organizing goal instead of vague “helping the community” platitudes—helped me become a successful grant writer.

Like good community organizers, grant writers focus on completing the task, not talking about the process for completing the task. Anonymity is another aspect of community organizers that closely aligns with grant writers. Good community organizers never take the spotlight, deferring to the leaders they have nurtured to take the lead at press conferences, actions and the like. Similarly, grant writers largely toil without recognition, since we are just ghost writers for the others who accept the accolades of funded projects. Hey, maybe I’m actually more like James Bond than Barack Obama, since Mr. Bond definitely stays in the shadows, unlike emerging politicians.**


*If you want to understand community organizing, read Saul Alinsky’s seminal books, Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals, both of which I annotated like a copy of Shakespeare’s complete works.

** I for one will lift a Vesper when A Quantum of Solace opens in November. Although the movie probably doesn’t have much to do with the eponymous Ian Fleming story in the only Bond short story collection, For Your Eyes Only, it has been one of my favorite Bond yarns since I first read it as a 13-year-old. I am delighted that the Bond film franchise was reinvented with Casino Royale two years ago and remain hopeful for the next installment.

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