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.
One thing that has cropped up in the campaign recently is the issue of pragmatism. Obama’s taken some heat for compromising, even reversing, some positions. Saul Alinsky famously counseled organizers to encounter the “world as it is” and not the world as we want it to be. I wonder if you see Obama’s positioning as a manifestation of his organizing background or just a politician being a politician.
He’s operating as Senator Obama more than he is as an organizer. Sure, the organizing paradigm is always in contention with the world as it is and the world as it should be–Obama uses this a lot in his talks. But as an organizer, you’ve got a constituency of leaders who you’re in discussion with, and if there’s some kind of deal offered that will get you part of the way to what your goal is, they vote and determine if they’re gonna take it. I don’t know who his constituency is.
Yeah, you really need to consider from what vantage point you’re seeing the “world as it is.” When you’re an organizer you become deeply connected with people who are struggling, people who haven’t had access to the democratic process to voice their concerns. That’s where we stand. In a campaign there are a lot of competing interests. I just think at the end of the day, Obama needs to decide where he stands and who he’s looking out for.
Even the best Presidents need social movements to accomplish transformational change. FDR could not have succeeded without the agitation of the unemployed workers’ councils and the unions, and LBJ’s greatest accomplishments were made possible by the civil rights movement. The field of organizing is itself being called by the times to step up to that challenge of movement building from below.
It always struck me as interesting that “organizing” is something that campaigns ostensibly do, but the way they do it is very different from the kind of community organizing you all do. So what’s the overlap between the skills you learn as an organizer and those you learn as a politician?
Having an organizing background actually makes you a better candidate because you’re trained to listen to what people say and what people don’t say. My experience is that you use the same skills in both: understanding people’s common interests and how to coalesce around a common cause. The only marked difference is that when you’re a candidate the constituency you’re trying to organize is much larger, so you have to appeal to a broader range of people. People might see that and think you’re selling out or acting like a politician, but it’s more that you have a lot of people in your constituency who might not share your worldview.
What Anton was saying is correct, but I still think that what you’re doing as an organizer has a different purpose. You have to have the capacity to relate to many different interests, sure, but when you’re organizing you don’t have to get 51 percent of a community.
What I find with politicians is the unwillingness to face tension, to embrace it, then to decide, Yeah, this is where we need to be. As a community organizer, that’s what I’m hungry for. Particularly on comprehensive immigration reform, which we desperately need, it’s incredibly painful right now when you have elected officials who are afraid to take action, to take risks. I think community organizing is about taking risks.
It seems strange that Obama got his start as an organizer, because he does seem so cautious. Even in Dreams From My Father you see how he has a hard time coming to terms with the confrontational part of organizing.
Yeah, I disagree that he’s somehow scared of confrontation. I see it as being more strategic, not being reckless. Look, when I was organizing to close down 300 drug houses, we were confrontational with the chief of police, even with the drug dealers themselves. That’s the model that works for that environment. But then when we tried to get the governor to create treatment instead of prisons, we began to execute a different, less confrontational strategy. We needed to consider legislators from very small towns, and business interests, and at the end of the day we won that fight at the state level. We got a treatment bill passed.
I think a lot is being said about Obama’s more collegial or collaborative ways of viewing the world, but the question is, Is he more averse to confrontation or more of a strategic thinker?
For me, I didn’t need to learn to be confrontational. I’m Dominican, I grew up in the South Bronx and I was born to be an organizer. What needed to be developed in me was the compromising part and actually being able to see the other side. So I think I have an appreciation, particularly after fifteen years of organizing, for that ability. And that’s what I see in Barack.
It’s funny you bring up learning to be an organizer, because one of the most striking things about this campaign, particularly the Obama Fellows program, is that it represents quite possibly the largest organizing training in history. They’ve got this 368-page training manual with the motto “Respect, Empower, Include.” What do you think are the implications of having this whole new cadre of people equipped with this set of tools?
I’m very hopeful about that. For quite some time there’s been a sense that basic organizing is passé. You do the TV ads, you do the commercials and you do very little to engage people face to face. But if they’re really training people in some of the basic skills and concepts of organizing, then I think it’s going to bring us into a politics that’s more face to face. That’s good for everyone.
When I was running meetings in South Carolina, I would tell every young person that came in to be a field organizer, Take this seriously because this is life-changing work that you’re doing. The skills you’re learning–how to do a one-on-one, how to do a house meeting, how to identify leaders–you will use for the rest of your life, no matter what you do. The investment our organizers were making in developing community leadership is going to translate twenty years from now. It’s a blueprint, and I don’t think you can underscore enough how important that is.
One of the single most important contributions that Obama has already made to social change in America is the enormous recognition he has given through his bully pulpit to the work of organizing.
Obama supporters recently used MyBarackObama.com, the campaign social networking site, to organize opposition to his support of the FISA bill. I wonder if you think we’ll see more of this if Obama wins: people using the tools and networks that have been developed through the campaign to actually pressure Obama and the Democratic Party to deliver.
First, there’s always the worry that if people don’t see immediate change, they’ll get disillusioned and say, We tried getting involved and it didn’t work. The other worry I have is that the people who’ve supported him won’t want to take him on. God knows, anything is better than what we have now. And let’s give him what is fair. But there’s gonna be a lot of pressure to just lay off the guy. So I think organizers would have an easier time, with the skills they’ve learned, in challenging McCain than Obama. It’s a more straightforward enterprise.
That to me is a central dilemma we’ll be wrestling with at The Nation.
From the perspective of a possible future Obama administration, that’s where I hope he truly is comfortable with community organizing. And I mean not just doing it but having it done to him. I think this is an opportunity for us on the outside as organizers to be prepared and take our space and move forward and engage to make change real. We’ve been discussing the idea of, how do we have both the politics of protest and the politics of engagement and embracing those two perspectives at the same time and getting things done. In California we had a Democratic governor, Democratic Assembly and Democratic State Senate, but little changed because the community organizations were not mature enough to push and engage at the same time.
At this point the whole idea is, as soon as he comes into office, to be there consistently. To not take anything for granted. To be present.