In 1985, freshly graduated from Columbia University and working for a New York business consultant, Barack Obama decided to become a community organizer. Though he liked the idea, he didn’t understand what the job involved, and his inquiries turned up few opportunities.
Then he got a call from Jerry Kellman, an organizer working on Chicago’s far South Side for a community group based in the churches of the region, an expanse of white, black and Latino blue-collar neighborhoods that were reeling from the steel-mill closings. Kellman was looking for an organizer for the new Developing Communities Project (DCP), which would focus on black city neighborhoods.
Obama, only 24, struck board members as “awesome” and “extremely impressive,” and they quickly hired him, at $13,000 a year, plus $2,000 for a car–a beat-up blue Honda Civic, which Obama drove for the next three years organizing more than twenty congregations to change their neighborhoods.
Despite some meaningful victories, the work of Obama–and hundreds of other organizers–did not transform the South Side or restore lost industries. But it did change the young man who became the junior senator from Illinois in 2004, and it provides clues to his worldview as he bids for the Democratic presidential nomination.
“I can’t say we didn’t make mistakes, that I knew what I was doing,” Obama recalled three years ago to a boisterous convention of the still-active DCP. “Sometimes I called a meeting, and nobody showed up. Sometimes preachers said, ‘Why should I listen to you?’ Sometimes we tried to hold politicians accountable, and they didn’t show up. I couldn’t tell whether I got more out of it than this neighborhood.”
But, he continued, “I grew up to be a man, right here, in this area. It’s as a consequence of working with this organization and this community that I found my calling. There was something more than making money and getting a fancy degree. The measure of my life would be public service.”
After a transient youth and an earnest search for identity, Obama also found a home–a community with which he continued relationships, a church and a political identity. He honed his talent for listening, learned pragmatic strategy, practiced bringing varied people together and developed a faith in ordinary citizens that still influences his campaign message. He discovered the importance of personal storytelling in politics (and wrote short stories that refined his style).
Later, as a politician, he worked closely with community groups (though not as ardently as another community organizer turned politician, the late Senator Paul Wellstone). As a presidential candidate, he frequently refers to his community organizing, asking supporters to treat his campaign as a social movement in which he is just “an imperfect vessel of your hopes and dreams.”
Obama worked as an organizer at a time when Harold Washington’s election as mayor stirred his hopes and dreams, as well as those of blacks and progressives in the city. Interviews with people who worked with him during that time elicited few complaints–virtually everyone described him in glowing terms, including dedicated, hard-working, dependable, intelligent, inspiring, a good listener, confident but self-effacing. They expressed admiration for him as an organizer who trained strong community leaders while keeping himself in the background and as a strategist who could turn general problems into specific, winnable issues. Loretta Augustine-Herron, a member of the DCP board that hired him, remembers him as someone who always followed the high road. “You’ve got to do it right,” she recalls him insisting. “Be open with the issues. Include the community instead of going behind the community’s back–and he would include people we didn’t like sometimes. You’ve got to bring people together. If you exclude people, you’re only weakening yourself. If you meet behind doors and make decisions for them, they’ll never take ownership of the issue.”