September 7, 2008


GOP Mocks Public Service (Peter Dreier & John Atlas, September 5, 2008, The Nation)

Modern community organizing, an important strand of grassroots activism, began with Jane Addams, who founded Hull House in Chicago in the late 1800s and inspired the settlement house movement. These activists--upper-class philanthropists, middle-class reformers and working-class radicals--organized immigrants to clean up sweatshops and tenement slums, improve sanitation and public health and battle against child labor and crime.

In the 1930s, another Chicagoan, Saul Alinsky, sought to organize residents the way unions organized workers. Drawing on existing groups--particularly churches, block clubs, sports leagues, and unions--he formed the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council to get the city to improve services to a working-class neighborhood adjacent to meatpacking factories.

A half-century later, in 1985, 23-year-old Barack Obama moved to Chicago to work for the Developing Communities Project, a coalition of churches on the city's South Side. His job was to help empower residents to win improved playgrounds, after-school programs, job training, housing, and other concerns affecting a neighborhood hurt by large-scale layoffs from the nearby steel mills and neglect by banks, retail stores and the local government. He knocked on doors and talked to people in their kitchens, living rooms and churches about the problems they faced and why they needed to get involved to improve their communities.

Obama often refers to the valuable lessons he learned working "in the streets" of Chicago. "I've won some good fights and I've also lost some fights," he said in a speech during the primary season, "because good intentions are not enough, when not fortified with political will and political power."

There are at least 20,000 paid organizers in the United States, according to Walter Davis, executive director of the National Organizers Alliance. They work for community groups, environmental organizations, unions, women's and civil rights groups, tenants organizations, churches and school reform efforts--touching the lives of millions of Americans every day. They work long hours, usually for low pay. Organizers identify people with leadership potential, recruit and train them and help them build grassroots organizations that can win victories that improve their communities and workplaces.

I actually worked as a community organizer for an environmental group in NJ in the mid-80s and they wouldn't promote me because I supported the Contras (no, seriously). Though they do some good, they're not particularly interested in communities but in their own leftist agendas.

The Agitator: Barack Obama's unlikely political education (Ryan Lizza, 3/19/07, The New Republic)

His teachers were schooled in a style of organizing devised by Saul Alinsky, the radical University of Chicago-trained social scientist. At the heart of the Alinsky method is the concept of "agitation"-- making someone angry enough about the rotten state of his life that he agrees to take action to change it; or, as Alinsky himself described the job, to "rub raw the sores of discontent."

On this particular evening, Kruglik was debriefing Obama about his work when a panhandler approached. Instead of ignoring the man, Obama confronted him. "Now, young man, is that really what you want to be about?" Obama demanded. "I mean, come on, don't you want to be better than that? Let's get yourself together."

Kruglik remembers this episode as an example of why, in ten years of training organizers, Obama was the best student he ever had. He was a natural, the undisputed master of agitation, who could engage a room full of recruiting targets in a rapid-fire Socratic dialogue, nudging them to admit that they were not living up to their own standards. As with the panhandler, he could be aggressive and confrontational. With probing, sometimes personal questions, he would pinpoint the source of pain in their lives, tearing down their egos just enough before dangling a carrot of hope that they could make things better.

More than 20 years later, Obama presents himself as a post-partisan consensus builder, not a rabble-rouser, and certainly not a disciple of Alinsky, who disdained electoral politics and titled his organizing manifesto Rules for Radicals. [...]

[W]hile Alinsky is often viewed as an ideological figure--toward the end of his life, New Left radicals tried to claim him as one of their own--to place Alinsky within a taxonomy of left-wing politics is to miss the point. His legacy is less ideological than methodological. Alinsky's contribution to community organizing was to create a set of rules, a clear-eyed and systemic approach that ordinary citizens can use to gain public power. The first and most fundamental lesson Obama learned was to reassess his understanding of power. Horwitt says that, when Alinsky would ask new students why they wanted to organize, they would invariably respond with selfless bromides about wanting to help others. Alinsky would then scream back at them that there was a one-word answer: "You want to organize for power!"

Galluzzo shared with me the manual he uses to train new organizers, which is little different from the version he used to train Obama in the '80s. It is filled with workshops and chapter headings on understanding power: "power analysis," "elements of a power organization," "the path to power." Galluzzo told me that many new trainees have an aversion to Alinsky's gritty approach because they come to organizing as idealists rather than realists. But Galluzzo's manual instructs them to get over these hang-ups. "We are not virtuous by not wanting power," it says. "We are really cowards for not wanting power," because "power is good" and "powerlessness is evil."

The other fundamental lesson Obama was taught is Alinsky's maxim that self-interest is the only principle around which to organize people.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 7, 2008 8:32 AM
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