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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