Obama’s Community Organizing: The Thousand Points of Light?

Barack Obama’s years of service as a community organizer were disparaged during last week’s Republican National Convention. Of course, the … Continued

Barack Obama’s years of service as a community organizer were disparaged during last week’s Republican National Convention. Of course, the job description for a community organizer might be unknown to many Americans. But it’s surprising to hear Republicans–members of the party that espouses non-governmental solutions to social problems–ridiculing a man’s privately funded community work. I thought that community work like Obama’s was the GOP’s solution to our social ills?

A closer look at Obama’s pre-legislature days offers more insight into his accomplishments. When he moved to Chicago in 1985, after graduating from Columbia, he found white, black, and Latina persons on Chicago’s South Side hampered by the closure of steel mills. He began working for a privately funded community group, Developing Communities Project. Obama helped create a job training center (although its effect was limited by a general lack of jobs). He organized residents of Chicago Housing Authority apartments to force the city to fix decrepit buildings, including to fix basic services like plumbing and to abate dangerous asbestos in some apartments. He helped residents get streets fixed and tried to encourage economic redevelopment through private investment.

He tried to bring together different persons into a common movement, often working with church congregations. Sometimes he publicly exposed inefficiencies of government programs and official incompetence. He tried to empower residents to own their problems and seek solutions, helping them find the right resources, sometimes through government resources, and sometimes in spite of government obstacles. These are some of the projects he tried to accomplish as a community organizer, while making $13,000 per year, funded by private organizations.

As has been well-documented, he grew frustrated at the lack of resulting systemic change–forcing the abatement of asbestos from a few apartments does not generate a Housing Authority mandate to clear all apartments of the dangerous substance. That requires coordinated action with legal mandates to force the change. So, in 1988, he returned East to study law and embark on a legislative career, in order to address the issues from within the halls of government.

As Obama was finalizing plans to start at Harvard Law, George H.W. Bush was running for President on the Republican ticket in 1988. I vividly remember his calls for limiting governmental spending and encouraging people–as he did in his inaugural address–to take up a “new engagement in the lives of others, a new activism, hands-on and involved, that gets the job done.” These hands-on organizers he famously called “a thousand points of light,” consisting 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.” Looking back, it seems like the President Bush might have had the young Barack Obama in mind as the very prototype of the hands-on organizer–a young dreamer, rolling up his sleeves to work in the community, engaging his neighbors, encouraging them to solve problems, all while working with private funding, off the government payroll.

Now flash forward to the 2008 convention twenty years later, an age when the current Republican President has taken his father’s dream of community organizations and given them government funding. What is the 2008 Republican vision of community organizers, those agents of change working hands-on, outside of government?

Well, something has drastically changed. Faced with Obama’s record of real hands-on experience in the streets, Mayor Rudy Guiliani sneered at community organizing, suggesting it was low work for an Ivy Leaguer, while the crowd loudly booed: here “you have a resume from a gifted man with an Ivy League education. He worked as a community organizer. What? He worked — I said — I said, OK, OK, maybe this is the first problem on the resume. He worked as a community organizer. He immersed himself in Chicago machine politics.” The cameras recorded loud boos in support of the Mayor’s mocking.

Next up, Governor Palin contrasted her mayoral experience with Obama’s community organizing experience by mocking his lack of official responsibility: “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities.”

Apparently for these leaders of the current GOP, community organizing is neither suitable work for the well-educated, and only legitimate if one holds elected office. So much for H.W.’s vision that community organizing was the work we all should engage in, including the best and brightest of our youth.

The tone of the Convention speeches was meant to mock this community work as rabble-rousing and insignificant. But it was not lost on many watching the convention floor sea of mostly white faces that the words ‘community organizing’ might, for them elicit images more along the lines of forming a committee to decide where to plant the roses in their neighborhood park, or making phone calls to solicit donations for the church bake sale.

The glaring problem for the GOP in 2008 is that community organizing no longer conjures images of private persons working to help impoverished people find food, housing, and medical care.

Compassionate conservatism–that is, the second Bush’s vision of private individuals working outside of government to help the poorest among us–has suddenly morphed into open hostility for privately-funded community work. In the midst of so much economic hardship, the GOP’s loss of compassion as a modifier of conservatism may lead to a loss of many votes among people who are helped every day by the new young people following the lead of community organizers like Obama.

Before George H.W. Bush ever publicly uttered his lofty vision for raising up a thousand points of light, Obama was in the South Side carrying a candle to the doorsteps of residents whose economic hopes were very dim. It’s too bad that the thousand points of light are now very dim in the McCain/Palin GOP.

Michael Kessler is Assistant Director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University and a Visiting Assistant Professor of Government.

By Michael Kessler | 
September 8, 2008; 12:38 PM ET


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  • Michael Kessler

    No, I said he “tried” to accomplish, not that he did accomplish. Read closely. And you clearly know nothing about the University of Chicago if you think it to be, by default, a liberal bastion or a place where everyone has the same opinion. You should check back in when you have something interesting to say.

  • Thomas Archibald

    Your attempt at a “rebuttal” and condescending attitude speaks volumes. You say I “should check back in when I have something interesting to say.” Shades of Al Gore! In other words, the discussion has ended because you are sure you have all of the answers.I lived in the academic world for 22 years and suspect you feel you are so learned and superior that a mere mortal should not challenge you. I mean Georgetown, Purdue, etc. — of course you are superior. You are the “Professor” and somehow you believe I am the ‘student’. Get over it!You preface your discussion of Obama’s community organizer work with the following statement:”A closer look at Obama’s pre-legislature days offers more insight into his accomplishments.” Then you go on to disparage President Bush’s thousand points of light metaphor and talk about Obama “bringing a candle to the doorsteps of residents whose economic hopes were very dim”. If that is not trying to legitimize Obama I don’t know what is?Then you try to cover yourself by falling back on the word ‘tried’ in a final sentence — a word I suspect you just happened to use. The obvious overarching tone and purpose of your writing was to attempt to give credence to the work of ‘community organizers’ (specifically Obama) and to take a slap at comments made by Republicans about such individuals.I’m sure you will be surprised that I share the skeptic views of how much good a ‘community organizer’ does (particularly in the case of Obama). Jesse (shakedown) Jackson and Al Sharpton (Tawna Brawley) also wore the label of ‘community organizers’. They are typical of what most think of when they hear such a term.The Democrat’s attacked Gov. Palin on a lack of executive experience when it is Obama who has never stood in that role. In a trial when someone opens a door the other side has the right to go through it with their own questions. This is what Sarah Palin and Rudy Guiliani did to the ‘community organizer’ label Obama has. I am sure Mayor Guiliani knows quite well from his years in New York City, all about ‘community organizers’!The title “Community Organizer” is mocked because it sounds so fresh-out-of-college pompous: as though communities cannot organize themselves, they need the worldly wisdom of a 22-year old to do it for them. Obama should have used a more straightforward title like “Director” or “Manager” of a local charity group. But maybe those sound too “corporate” to Democrats.A great example of minimal accomplishment by a group of ‘community organizers’ is the story of ACORN. That groups President, Maude Hurd, issued a statement about how horrible it was for Republican’s to make condescending remarks on the great work community organizers accomplish in cities throughout this country. All they are is another Democratic front group with multiple agendas. I call to your attention the following from the NY Post:The folks at the far-left radical activist group ACORN are embroiled in a financial corruption and cover-up scandal that they managed to keep hidden from their donors and political partners for eight years.Now their deception has been uncovered for all to see.But is ACORN’s leadership apologetic? Not in the slightest. “We did what we thought was right,” said the group’s president, Maude Hurd.ACORN’s founder – whose brother perpetrated the fraud – also defended the cover-up, saying publicity would have given the group’s critics a “weapon.”As if there wasn’t enough ammunition already to discredit ACORN.The New York Times reports that Dale Rathke – whose brother started the group back in 1970 as a vehicle to help low-income people “take back what’s rightfully theirs” – embezzled nearly $1 million from ACORN back in 1999 and 2000.How did ACORN handle the crime? By disguising it on the books as a loan from one of its contractors and letting Rathke’s family make restitution at the rate of $30,000 a year. (An anonymous donor reportedly has agreed to pick up the remaining $800,000 tab.)Incredibly, ACORN kept Rathke on the payroll as a $38,000-a-year employee until as recently as last month – and only let him go when word of his fraud leaked to donors.And, the Times reports, most of the people who covered up the embezzlement are still working for ACORN.Actually, none of this really should surprise. After all, “fraud” has practically been ACORN’s middle name.I could provide many more examples like this and hate to rain on your parade with facts, but ask you to take an objective look at the world. I also want to help less fortunate individuals out, but how much more ‘redistribution’ can we accept? New Orleans was a perfect example of Democratic handouts keeping people locked in poverty. The same flooding occurred in Iowa but folks there took care of themselves because that is how they have always handled life.