Obama of the Community


Ryan Lizza’s recent New Yorker piece on Obama is well worth the hour. Not for the first time, it strikes me that this sort of political profile is the very best of long-form journalism and that it is something we could use a lot more of here in Canada.

Overall, it’s a useful look at Obama’s political rise, although the ultimate conclusion is not anything we couldn’t have guessed: BHO is a politician like any other (“Superheroes don’t become President; politicians do”), and his image as a post-partisan authentic is just that — a carefully crafted image. There are some neat glimpses at Chicago politics (e.g. the ongoing presence of SDS/Weatherman figures), and I like the distinction made in passing between machine-politics and image-politics. There’s a book to be written on that, if one hasn’t been already (and if you don’t count Politics Lost).

The piece has some gaps though — I have yet to see a proper examination of Obama’s relationship with Tony Reszko. But here’s a serious question: What the heck does it mean to be a “community organizer”. The piece talks about how important BHO’s three years as a “community organizer” were, and how he tried to bring the principles of “community organizing” to public office.

Is that code for something, or is it one of those US jobs that we have no equivalent to here in Canada. What does a community organizer do? Is it a partisan position? How much do they get paid? Who pays them? etc.

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Obama of the Community

  1. Obama writes in detail about his work as a community organizer in Dreams From My Father (which is worth reading, by the way, and not just because he might become the most powerful person in the world). It’s a non-partisan position that involved him being paid by, I believe, a charitable foundation. Much of his work dealt with a particular low-income community. One of the projects he mentions in detail involved pressuring landlords to inspect for toxic asbestos. Much of his work was done through nearby churches. It’s not clear how much he was being paid.

  2. Andrew A few weeks ago you mentioned Shelby Steele and how his books were worth reading. I got A Bound Man from library and read it last weekend. Very interesting and it introduced me to a new way of seeing things. Do you know if ‘bargainer’ and ‘challenger’ are his own ideas?

    Anyways, here is what I found out about community organizing, from The Nation April 2007:

    “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.”


  3. The 30 June edition of National Review had a good article about Barack Obama as a community organizer. It seems that the job consisted of meeting with local organisations (e.g., churches, schools, apartment complexes, laid off workers), and convincing them to work to achieve common ends, like new government programmes in their neighbourhoods.

    “[I]f you ask Obama’s fellow organizers what his most significant accomplishments were, they point to two ventures: the expansion of a city summer-job program for South Side teenagers and the removal of asbestos from one of the area’s oldest housing projects.”

    People were very impressed by his skills, according to the article, but not much was really achieved. The problems of South Side Chicago were too deep for a community organizer to do much about.

    The article seems fair to me. It’s mostly straight-ahead reporting (from, to be sure, a sceptical perspective), not polemic.

  4. Weren’t community organizers previously called “ward heelers”?

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