Barack Obama often says that the best education he got wasn’t at Harvard but on the streets of the South Side of Chicago, where he worked as a community organizer for three years. His formative experience as an organizer has seemed to carry through to his campaign, which has hired more organizers and invested more in grassroots activity than any campaign in recent memory. At campaign events, Obama will often recount his experience as a community organizer, working long hours for paltry pay and little recognition, before bringing a few of the local organizers from his campaign onstage to thank them and allow them to bask in the audience’s applause. This summer the campaign has recruited 3,600 Obama Fellows, volunteers deployed around the country who will spend six weeks getting trained in organizing and working with grassroots supporters. Joy Cushman, who runs the fellows program, calls it the biggest organizing training in history.
So what does it mean that we might have a President who was a community organizer? How do organizers view the Obama campaign, and what would this resurgence in grassroots organizing mean for an Obama presidency? On the eve of the Democratic National Convention, The Nation reached out to five community organizers from across the country to discuss these and other issues. Washington editor
conducted the interviews, of which an edited transcript follows.
is executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
has served as the South Carolina political director for the Obama campaign and as executive director of South Carolina Fair Share. He’s currently running for State Representative.
is co-director of the Civil Rights of Immigrants department of the Gamaliel Foundation.
has been an organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation.
is executive director of the Center for Community Change.
I guess I should start with the most basic question, which is: what is community organizing? I think at some point the Obama campaign realized that people probably had no idea what the heck “community organizer” meant. So how do you guys explain what you do?
My father is 94 and I’m still trying to explain it to him. [Laughs.] The best way to think about it is to look at all the massive decisions that are being made with no input from people in civic society. It’s all made between the private sector and the government. All the rest of us, we’re not even in the conversation. We’re being taken for granted. So as organizers, we want to enable people to not just be a subject of history but to write it themselves. We try to build power among communities so they can engage the public and private sector. A big part of that is recruiting, training and developing leadership, and trying to build that leadership across geography, race, class, culture, ethnicity.
It’s worth noting that community organizing has changed in some pretty fundamental ways since Obama had his formative experiences as an organizer. Obama left organizing partly because he thought the scale of the problems facing poor communities could not be addressed by isolated neighborhood groups, no matter how good their methods. And he was right. What’s happened is that over the last ten years, lots of groups have moved up the chain to address public policy issues at the state and even the federal levels: taxation, healthcare, wages, immigration reform. Also, electoral politics was anathema to most community organizing groups a decade ago, but today the vast majority view it as a necessary component of any strategy to build power for poor and working people in this country. So there’s been a kind of convergence: Obama and the field of organizing from which he emerged have moved in similar directions in how they conceive of power and social change.