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.”
Obama worked in the organizing tradition of Saul Alinsky, who made Chicago the birthplace of modern community organizing, as translated through the Gamaliel Foundation, one of several networks of faith-based organizing. Often by confronting officials with insistent citizens–rather than exploiting personal connections, as traditional black Democrats proposed–Obama and DCP protected community interests regarding landfills and helped win employment training services, playgrounds, after-school programs, school reforms and other public amenities.
One day a resident at Altgeld Gardens, a geographically isolated public housing project surrounded by waste sites, brought a notice about planned removal of asbestos from the project manager’s office. Obama organized the community to find out if there was asbestos in their apartments. They persisted as officials lied and delayed, then took a bus–with far fewer people than Obama had anticipated–to challenge authorities downtown. Ultimately, the city was forced to test all the apartments and eventually begin cleaning them up.
In his autobiography, Dreams From My Father, Obama writes that the bus trip changed him in a fundamental way, “because it hints at what might be possible and therefore spurs you on…. That bus ride kept me going, I think. Maybe it still does.”
A recent Los Angeles Times report contended that Obama overstated his own importance, ignoring others who were working on environmental issues; but in the book he’s extremely modest about his role and accomplishments, much as he was as an organizer when he refused fellow organizers’ suggestions that he embellish the group’s achievements. “There was no campaign without Barack,” Kellman says. “He was there to get people to organize when they wouldn’t organize at all.” Hazel Johnson, a longtime Altgeld Gardens environmental activist, says, “Yeah, he’s a good organizer. I’ve got to give it to him.”
But Obama grew restless and eventually went to Harvard Law School. “He said you can only go so far in organizing. You help people get some solutions, but it’s never as big as wiping away problems,” says Michael Evans, a DCP organizer after Obama left. “It wasn’t end-all. He wanted to be part of the end-all, to get things done.” But Obama kept his ties to DCP and worked out of its office when he ran a drive that registered 150,000 new voters in 1992 and became the springboard for his own grassroots campaign for Illinois State Senate.
Obama’s politics of transcendent unity, which has appealed to many voters, has its roots in his work as a “bridge builder,” in the words of the Rev. Anthony Van Zanten, overcoming the gulf within DCP between Catholic and Protestant churches. But this vision of harmony also reflects Obama’s distaste for conflict. “Personality-wise, Barack did not like direct confrontation,” Kellman says. “He was a very nice young man, very polite. It was a stretch for him to do Alinsky techniques. He was more comfortable in dialogue with people. But challenging power was not an issue for him. Lack of civility was.”
Obama’s organizing history may give few clues about what policies he would pursue as President, but Obama the presidential candidate still shows his roots–a faith in ordinary citizens, a quest for common ground and a pragmatic inclination toward defining issues in winnable ways. Even when Obama was an organizer, Augustine-Herron told him he would be the nation’s first black President. Now the Rev. Alvin Love, whom Obama recruited to DCP, looks at his candidacy and says, “Everything I see reflects that community organizing experience. I see the consensus-building, his connection to people and listening to their needs and trying to find common ground. I think at his heart Barack is a community organizer. I think what he’s doing now is that. It’s just a larger community to be organized.”