Back in the winter days of the primary when Center for Community Change hosted their forum on community values in Iowa, they invited all of the presidential candidates to listen to questions and stories from community leaders, and then finished with a simple direct question: will you meet with representatives of our group in the first 100 days. Everyone said yes, but Obama said he’d do them one better. They could meet with his transition team.
Well here we were, at Realizing the Promise, the second community forum
I was at the event yesterday and I have to say it’s the most excited I’ve felt about the future of the Obama administration since election night. “Today community organizing has arrived in Washington DC,” said CCC’s Deepak Bhargava. “This is the biggest opportunity in 40 years. We now have a community organizer in Chief in the White House…We can’t settle anymore for just complaining about what we don’t like. We’re planning on working in partnership with key allies not just to oppose, but to propose.”
The event itself was held in a packed ballroom in the Hilton with community members from 32 states bussed in. It was kicked off with a series of prayers from an almost comically ecumenical range of clerics (including a rabbi blowing a shofar to get things started, which was awesome) and featured stories and statements from community leaders, as well as two panel discussions moderated (quite deftly, I’d add) by Juan Williams.
What was remarkable to me was that there really has been a convergence between what the grassroots is calling for: massive jobs stimulus, universal health care, comprehensive immigration reform, and what are quickly becoming consensus, even Establishment, views on the Democratic coalition.
Melody Barnes, Obama’s choice to head up the Domestic Policy Council in his White House, hinted at why this might be: “What we have now is a president-elect who understands that we are inter-connected, that each of us have a common set of problems and the solutions to those problems are inter-linked. We need the expertise that you have in the labor community, the faith community, born of immigrant experience, that exists in the business community. We are counting on you to talk to us, and we’ve started that process so that we can use that information to build the solutions that are going to bring opportunity and mobility back tot his country.”
Policy-making from the ground-up. If they pull that off, it would be revolutionary. Barnes continued, sketching out some hints as to the Obama agenda.
“We know we have an economic crisis staring us in the face and we have to do somethinggabout that. We are preparing a stimulus package to shock the economy back into being. We’re not forgetting about our promises to healthcare for everyone, education starting not just in kindergarten but the day you are born. We’re not forgetting our promises to immigrant community as well. All of those are in our agenda and we will start making down payments on those promises in the stimulus package.”
Barnes’ presence at the event, along with senior Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett, was significant. It’s the very first public event that any of the recently named White House staff or cabinet have attended. It sent a message: we hear you. We’re not forgetting you. You’re part of this. It was an incredibly important message to send.
This is new terrain for both sides, and the Obama folks and the grassroots are trying to figure out how to negotiate it. Mostly the sentiment in the room was a kind of euphoria. The people there haven’t had anyone in the White House listening to them for a long time. And they’ve certainly never had a community organizer in the White House before.
But figuring out the dynamics of the relationship — when to push, when to support, when to attack all out — is exceedingly difficult and you can sense that CCC, the Gameliel Foundation and others are in the process of figuring out just what this new relationship looks like.
I’d say, though, it got off to a very good start.