Thursday, November 6, 2008

Barack Obama: The Nation’s Community Organizer

Republican Vice President candidate Sarah Palin (and others like Rudi Jiuliani) had mocked and belittled Barack Obama’s 3 year Community Organizer experience. In her speech at the Republican National Convention back in Sept. she said “… I guess small town mayors are sort of like community organizers except they do have actual responsibilities”. Now we all know who is not laughing.

For populist politicians like Sarah Palin who don’t seem to read much nor think deep, they should learn more about the work of Saul Alinsky (1909-1972), the father of modern community organizing. Community organizers, current and past including Barack Obama, have been influenced greatly by Alinsky’s teachings. John Maki’s July 28th 2008 article on The Windy Citizen shed some lights into this very topic.

Whether you agree with his theory and approach, Alinsky did point a way to effect changes in a democratic society from bottom-up by educating and empowering people and communities to act and take power for themselves. For Alinsky, “organizing is the process of highlighting what is wrong and convincing people they can actually do something about it. The two are linked. If people feel they don’t have the power to change a bad situation, they stop thinking about it.” That is what has happened on Nov 4, 2008; enough number of people realized what was wrong, were convinced that they need to do something about it, and voted for Barack Obama to lead.

The path of community organizer is not easy. Obama went to South side of Chicago in 1985 when he graduated from Columbia University and worked with Gerald Kellman, Alinksy’s disciple, with a starting probational salary of $13,000 a year. Interestingly, 17 years earlier in 1968, Hilary Clinton did her senior thesis on Alinksy when graduating from Wellesley but declined his offer to join him. Later she went on to Yale Law School and ended up a different path to effect changes, working from within the system of power and establishment. Peter Slevin’s March 2007 Washington Post article For Clinton and Obama, a Common Ideological Touchstone explored the links.

In sum, Obama has learned and adapted the core ideas of Alinsky’s teachings with positive tactics and forces to the national level. His tens of thousands of voluntary ground army of persuasion, trained with methods of community organizing and lived and breathed with the average citizens across the states for the last 2 years, have rewritten the book of election campaigns. They demonstrated once and for all that one can build coalitions and effect changes without first becoming an elite and dominant power of the democratic system. At the dawn of a new era of American democracy, with careful navigation and competent implementations, we can hope to see a different and better society one day without an external community organizer – the ultimate success criterion for a successful community organizer.

Talk to you!

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