What Did Obama Do As A Community Organizer?

by Byron York

And is it really a qualification to be president?

EDITOR’S NOTE: At last week’s Republican convention in St. Paul, vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, under fire from Democrats who belittled her experience as a small-town mayor, struck back at Barack Obama, questioning whether his experience as a community organizer is a qualification for the presidency. “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer,” Palin said, “except that you have actual responsibilities.” Palin’s remarks set off a controversy over Obama and community organizing, forcing Obama himself to defend his experience. But it also raised a more basic question: Just what did Obama do as an organizer in Chicago in the 1980s? A few months ago, NR’s Byron York traveled to Chicago to explore Obama’s experience there. He wrote this report for the June 30 issue of National Review:

Chicago – Barack Obama often cites his time as a community organizer here in Chicago as one of the experiences that qualify him to hold the nation’s highest office. “I can bring this country together,” he said in a debate last February. “I have a track record, starting from the days I moved to Chicago as a community organizer.”

When Obama says such things, the reaction among many observers is: Huh?

Audiences understand when he mentions his years as an Illinois state legislator, or his brief tenure in the U.S. Senate. But a community organizer? What’s that?

Even Obama didn’t know when he first gave it a try back in 1985. “When classmates in college asked me just what it was that a community organizer did, I couldn’t answer them directly,” Obama wrote in his memoir, Dreams from My Father. “Instead, I’d pronounce on the need for change. Change in the White House, where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds. Change in the Congress, compliant and corrupt. Change in the mood of the country, manic and self-absorbed. Change won’t come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilized grass roots.”

If you substitute “Bush” for “Reagan,” you have a fairly accurate description of Obama’s 2008 campaign. That’s not a coincidence; it suggests that something about community organizing was central to Obama’s world view back then, and has remained central to his development as the politician he is today. What was it?

I counted myself among those who didn’t have a good idea of what a community organizer does. So I came here to learn more about Obama’s time in the job, from 1985 to 1988. What did he do? What did he accomplish? And what in his experience here stands as a qualification to be president of the United States?

THE RADICAL’S RULES

Perhaps the simplest way to describe community organizing is to say it is the practice of identifying a specific aggrieved population, say unemployed steelworkers, or itinerant fruit-pickers, or residents of a particularly bad neighborhood, and agitating them until they become so upset about their condition that they take collective action to put pressure on local, state, or federal officials to fix the problem, often by giving the affected group money. Organizers like to call that “direct action.”

Community organizing is most identified with the left-wing Chicago activist Saul Alinsky (1909-72), who pretty much defined the profession. In his classic book, Rules for Radicals, Alinsky wrote that a successful organizer should be “an abrasive agent to rub raw the resentments of the people of the community; to fan latent hostilities of many of the people to the point of overt expressions.” Once such hostilities were “whipped up to a fighting pitch,” Alinsky continued, the organizer steered his group toward confrontation, in the form of picketing, demonstrating, and general hell-raising. At first, the organizer tackled small stuff, like demanding the repair of streetlights in a city park; later, when the group gained confidence, the organizer could take on bigger targets. But at all times, the organizer’s goal was not to lead his people anywhere, but to encourage them to take action on their own behalf.

Alinsky started in the 1930s with workers in the Chicago stockyards. Many years later, when Obama arrived here, he came from a different perspective.

“Barack had been very inspired by the civil-rights movement,” Jerry Kellman, the organizer who hired Obama, told me recently. “I felt that he wanted to work in the civil-rights movement, but he was ten years too late, and this was the closest he could find to it at the time.” Obama, in his memoir, put it more simply when he said he went to Chicago to “organize black folks.”

Kellman, a New Yorker who had gotten into organizing in the 1960s, was trying to help laid-off factory workers on the far South Side of Chicago. He led a group, the Calumet Community Religious Conference, that had been created by several local Catholic churches. The Calumet region — basically the farthest southern reaches of Chicago plus the suburbs in northern Indiana — was an industrial area that had been hard hit by the closings of Wisconsin Steel and other industries. Kellman and the churches hoped to get some of those jobs back.

But there was a problem in the Chicago part of the equation. The area involved, around the Altgeld Gardens housing project and the neighborhood of Roseland, was nearly 100 percent black. Kellman was white, as were others who worked for CCRC. “The people didn’t open up to him like they would to somebody who was black and really understood what was going on in their lives,” Yvonne Lloyd, one of the key “leaders” — that is, local residents who worked closely with Obama — told me. “Black people are very leery when you come into their community and they don’t know you.” Lloyd and another leader, Loretta Augustine-Herron, insisted that Kellman hire a black organizer for a new spinoff from CCRC to be called the Developing Communities Project, which would focus solely on the Chicago part of the area.

So Kellman set out to find a black organizer. He ran an ad in some trade publications, and Obama responded. But at first Kellman wasn’t sure Obama was right for the job. “My wife was Japanese-American,” Kellman recalled. “I showed her the résumé, with the background in Hawaii. The name’s Obama, so I asked, ‘Could this be Japanese?’ She said, ‘Sure, it could be.’” It was only when Kellman talked to Obama on the phone, and Obama “expressed interest in something African-American culturally,” that a relieved Kellman offered Obama the job.

But Kellman had to sell Obama to the leaders. “Jerry introduces Barack, and Barack is so young, it’s like, ‘Oh my God,’” Loretta Augustine-Herron remembered. Obama was obviously smart, and he wanted to be an organizer, but he was, in fact, quite young (24) and he didn’t actually know much about the job. Despite those drawbacks, he seemed to work some sort of magic on the leaders. “He had a sensitivity I have never seen in anybody else to this day,” Augustine-Herron told me. “He understood.” The women were sold. “He didn’t have experience,” Augustine-Herron said. “But he had a sensitivity that allowed us to believe that he could do the job.” So Obama it was.

WHAT’S YOUR SELF-INTEREST?

New to Chicago, Obama set about conducting dozens of one-on-ones, that is, individual interviews with South Side residents in which he tried to discover which issues were most important to them. “You have to understand a person’s self-interest — that’s Alinsky’s terminology,” Mike Kruglik, an organizer who worked with Kellman and Obama, told me. “What’s happened to that person in his or her life? Where are they going? Why are they going there? What are they really passionate about?”

After the initial interviewing, Obama went to work on a number of projects.

The long-term goal was to retrain workers in order to restore manufacturing jobs in the area; Kellman took Obama by the rusted-out, closed-down Wisconsin Steel plant for a firsthand look. But the whole thing was a bit of a pipe dream, as the leaders soon discovered. “The idea was to interview these people and look at education, transferable skills, so that we could refer them to other industries,” Loretta Augustine-Herron told me as we drove by the site of the old factory, now completely torn down. “Well, they had no transferable skills. I remember interviewing one man who ran a steel-straightening machine. It straightened steel bars or something. I said, well, what did you do? And he told me he pushed a button, and the rods came in, and he pushed a button and it straightened them, and he pushed a button and it sent them somewhere else. That’s all he did. And he made big bucks doing it.”

That, of course, was one of the reasons the steel mill closed. And it became clear that neither Obama nor Kellman nor anyone else was going to change the direction of the steel industry and its unions in the United States. Somewhere along the line, everyone realized that those jobs wouldn’t be coming back.

So Obama looked for new opportunities. One thing he spent a lot of time on was creating a network of contacts beyond the white Catholic priests who originally sponsored the Developing Communities Project. “Many of the parishes were in predominantly African-American communities, and I think all of the priests were non-African-American,” Rev. Alvin Love, head of the Lilydale First Baptist Church on 113th Street, told me. “Barack came to me and wanted to try to connect with the whole community.”

Trying to construct a wide-ranging alliance of churches, Obama succeeded with Love and a few other ministers, but he was hampered by the fact that he didn’t go to church himself. “I said, ‘If you go to a pastor, and you ask him to come get involved in a community effort, and you say you have a group of churches, and that pastor asks you what church you belong to, and you say none — then it’s hard to get that pastor on board,’” Love recalled telling Obama. “He said, ‘I know, I understand, I’m working on it.’ He said, ‘I believe, I’m just waiting for the right spot, the right place, the right time.’” Love wasn’t the only minister to bring that up with Obama, and before long Obama, drawn to the preaching of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, joined Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street — where he would stay until political pressure created by Wright’s anti-American outbursts, combined with the anti-white message from another Obama friend, South Side priest Michael Pfleger, led him to resign his church membership.

Obama got the ministers involved in several projects, without great success. There was a push to get more city money for South Side parks after the Justice Department told the Chicago Park District it had to spend more on minority neighborhoods. There were plans for after-school programs, and job retraining for adults. But if 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. Those, they say, were his biggest victories.

‘WE JUST FOUND OURSELVES AN ISSUE’

If you start in Chicago’s downtown Loop area, and drive south on the Bishop Ford Expressway, you’ll come to the 130th Street Exit amid an almost surreal landscape. To the left, there is the massive Continental Grain elevator complex, looming like a cluster of skyscrapers, with a rusting tanker moored nearby in the Calumet River. Not far away are a number of rotting, shut-down businesses. Farther south, there is the Waste Management CID Landfill, a vast, and growing, mountain of garbage. And to the right, there is the Calumet Water Reclamation Plant, better known as the sludge plant, treating sewage from all around the region. And in the middle of it all is Altgeld Gardens, a sprawling brick low-rise housing project built in the 1940s in what is probably the least people-friendly location one could ever imagine.

Loretta Augustine-Herron lived here for a while in the 1960s, and one day in May she took me around in her pickup truck. In those days, she said, there was an awful smell coming across 130th Street from the sludge plant. “Sometimes when the wind blew the wrong way, you could not take a deep breath,” she said. “It was horrible.” And isolated, too: Then, as now, there were no stores, or restaurants, or much of anything in easy walking distance of Altgeld. You can’t take a train, because there are none around. And you can forget about a taxi. The best way to get around is the bus, which makes regular runs through the complex. Still, the sense of isolation is considerable.

Near the back of the Altgeld complex is a tightly locked gymnasium and a low, brown-brick building closed in by a chain-link fence, topped in places with barbed wire. It is Our Lady of the Gardens church, where Augustine-Herron and Yvonne Lloyd met, and where they got to know Barack Obama. And it was here that much of his career as an activist was set.

A staple priority of organizers like Obama was the summer-jobs program. In the 1980s the jobs were administered by the Mayor’s Office of Employment and Training, or MET, but the nearest MET office to Altgeld was a long way away — beyond 95th Street — and located in what some felt was enemy territory. “Our children, in order to get those summer-job programs, had to go over to the East Side — Vrdolyak’s territory,” Yvonne Lloyd told me, referring to Edward “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak, the Chicago alderman who was the champion of white ethnics and a sworn enemy of Harold Washington, the black mayor whose presence had inspired blacks across the city, including Obama.

“So, if you’re living in Altgeld, you don’t have the bus fare to go way over there, and they were out of their element, and they ended up not getting the jobs.” Why not demand a job center in their neighborhood? In Dreams from My Father, Obama describes visiting MET headquarters and looking at a brochure listing the locations of all branch offices. There was nothing south of 95th Street. “This is it,” he said. “We just found ourselves an issue.”

Obama then choreographed a drive to demand a new MET office. (The point, remember, was not for him to make the demands but for the leaders to do it for themselves.) They set up a meeting with MET officials, and then Obama drilled the leaders on what they should say. He took them around Roseland looking for a possible site for the new office. They found a shut-down department store at Michigan Avenue and 110th Street, and located the building’s owners. “He did all the legwork for us and brought it back to us,” Lloyd told me, “and we went downtown to the offices of the store and negotiated.” In a climactic meeting at Our Lady of the Gardens — Obama had, once again, carefully rehearsed the leaders on what they should say — MET officials agreed to open the new office. Obama had an accomplishment to point to.

“Our kids were able to go there, sign up, and get their summer jobs,” Lloyd told me. “It was fantastic to me, I just felt like — oh, it meant so much to us.” They were thrilled beyond words when Harold Washington himself came to the ribbon-cutting for the new office.

BATTLE OVER ASBESTOS

The other Obama accomplishment most people mention is the asbestos cleanup at Altgeld. One day someone — it’s not clear who — noticed that some rather specialized work seemed to be going on at the management office in the center of the complex. “A young lady came to us and said they’ve got white suits on and they’re doing something in the office,” Yvonne Lloyd told me. “We asked them what they were doing and they said, ‘We’re renovating.’ That didn’t sound right. Why would they be wearing all this gear if they were just renovating?” It turned out the workers were removing asbestos from the building.

In Obama’s telling, the problem was discovered when a young woman noticed a small-print notice in the classified section of a newspaper, soliciting bids for asbestos cleanup at Altgeld. However it began, it didn’t take the residents long to guess that if asbestos was in the office, it might be in their apartments, too. That discovery led to Obama’s greatest hit as an organizer.

Obama recruited the young woman to pay a visit to the Chicago Housing Authority official who worked at the management office. Obama went too, hoping the official would deny that there was any asbestos in the apartments. “A cover-up would generate as much publicity as the asbestos, I had told myself,” Obama wrote in Dreams from My Father. “Publicity would make my job easier.” And sure enough, the CHA official denied it all.

Obama followed up — had the residents follow up, of course — with letters to top CHA officials. Finally, the group sent a message to the agency’s executive director, warning they would show up at his office to demand action. They got in touch with local TV stations, and everyone came to cover the asbestos showdown.

As it turned out, there was no showdown. CHA officials accommodated the protesters, promising to begin testing the Altgeld apartments for asbestos that very day. They also promised to attend a meeting at Our Lady of the Gardens to listen to everyone’s concerns. A few weeks later, the director of CHA himself came to the church’s gymnasium, where Obama’s group was prepared to present a demand for timely repairs. Perhaps 300 people came, along with the TV crews. Things veered toward fiasco when the young woman Obama had chosen to question the CHA director wouldn’t give up the microphone so the director could answer. A semi-comic tug-of-war ensued, with the director finally bolting the meeting, followed by an increasingly angry crowd.

It was a fiasco, and racial conspiracy theories quickly spread among the residents. “The whole thing was put together by Vrdolyak,” Obama quotes one man saying. “You saw that white man egging the folks on. They just trying to make Harold look bad.” Obama was deflated; at the very least, the big show was a setback to his effort. It was precisely the sort of scene he had wanted to avoid. “He said, ‘Don’t get confrontational, don’t raise your voice, don’t scream and holler,’” Yvonne Lloyd told me. “He said, ‘You’ll get more the other way.’” (Jerry Kellman told me that Obama was not “a straight Alinsky organizer,” and his advice to Lloyd at Altgeld suggests that he generally preferred to avoid overt confrontation.)

The organizers ended up winning anyway, although the cleanup wasn’t finished until years later. But something had changed for Obama during the asbestos fight, and he began to consider leaving Chicago for law school. As he looked back, he believed that, on one hand, he had trained some good people; Loretta Augustine-Herron, for example, told me he inspired her to go to college, which led her to a satisfying career. But on the other hand, Obama seemed to realize that it was very, very hard to get anything done. “He didn’t see organizing making any significant changes in things,” Jerry Kellman recalled.

The solution, Obama felt, was to find a way to political power of his own.

“He was constantly thinking about his path to significance and power,” Mike Kruglik told me. “He said, ‘I need to go there [Harvard Law School] to find out more about power. How do powerful people think? What kind of networks do they have? How do they connect to each other?’”

In a few months, Obama was gone. He had been an organizer for three years. When he returned to Chicago after law school, he did some voter-registration work and then joined a civil-rights practice. In 1996, he ran for the state senate. Eight years later, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, and within a year after that he was exploring a run for president.

THE ORGANIZER
We look to formative experiences to help us understand presidential candidates. Visit an aircraft carrier in wartime and you’ll learn something about John McCain. Pilots fly off the deck, and sometimes they come back, and sometimes they don’t. One day, McCain didn’t, and began the time as a prisoner of war that both revealed his character and launched his political career. No matter what he has done since, the U.S. Navy is the culture that made McCain, with his heavy emphasis on duty, honor, and country.

Community organizing is just as essential in understanding Obama. But what does it say about him?

The first thing is that he has a talent for, well, organizing. Everyone who worked with Obama says he was good at the job. And he has used the techniques he learned in Chicago to organize his own presidential campaign, going so far as to enlist Mike Kruglik to help start a “Camp Obama” program to instill organizing principles into Obama supporters. The result is a campaign that even Obama’s opponents admit is a very impressive operation.

But Obama’s time in Chicago also revealed the conventionality of his approach to the underlying problems of the South Side. Is the area crippled by a culture of dysfunction? Demand summer jobs. Push for an after-school program. Convince the city to spend more on this or that. It was the same old stuff; Obama could think outside the box on ways to organize people, but not on what he was organizing them for.

Certainly no one should live in an apartment contaminated by asbestos, but Obama did not seem to question, or at least question very strongly, the notion that the people he wanted to organize should be living in Altgeld at all. The place was, after all, one of the nation’s capitals of dysfunction. “Every ten years I would work on the census,” Yvonne Lloyd told me. “I always had Altgeld. When you look at those forms from the census, you had three or four generations in one apartment — the grandmother, the mother, the daughter, and then her baby. It was supposed to be a stepping stone, but you’ve got people that are never going to leave.”

No doubt Obama would agree that that is a bad thing, but when a real attempt to break through that culture of dysfunction — the landmark 1996 welfare-reform bill, now widely accepted as one of the most successful domestic-policy initiatives in a generation — came up, Obama vowed to use all the resources at his disposal to undo it. “I made sure our new welfare system didn’t punish people by kicking them off the rolls,” he said in 1999. Two years earlier, he had declared: “We want to make sure that there is health care, child care, job training, and transportation vouchers — everything that is needed to ensure that those who need it will have support.” Obama applied his considerable organizational skills to perpetuating the old, failed way of doing things.

Obama’s professional colleagues, people like Jerry Kellman, believe his lasting accomplishment was to build an organization, the Developing Communities Project, that survived his departure. Today, DCP still exists, run out of a small Methodist church building on 95th Street, working on after-school programs, drug prevention, and voter registration. It has become, much more than it was when Obama was there, a grant-getting institution; according to tax records, about three-quarters of its funding comes from government grants, with the rest from liberal foundations like the Woods Fund, on whose board Obama sat from 1993 to 2002.

Has any of that brought about the change Obama spoke of back in 1985? Not in any large sense. But if Obama doesn’t have much to show for his years as an organizer, it’s fair to say that many of the people he touched revere him deeply. Remember what Loretta Augustine-Herron said: Obama had such a powerful presence that he made her believe he could do the job, even though there was little in his résumé to suggest he could. Does that sound familiar to anyone who has watched the Obama campaign? When hope is the product, Obama can sell it with the best of them.

When he left for law school, Obama wondered what he had accomplished as an organizer. He certainly had some achievements, but he did not — perhaps could not — concede that there might be something wrong with his approach to Chicago’s problems. Instead of questioning his own premises, he concluded that he simply needed more power to get the job done. So he made plans to run for political office. And in each successive office, he has concluded that he did not have enough power to get the job done, so now he is running for the most powerful office in the land.

And what if he gets it? He’ll be the biggest, strongest organizer in the world. He’ll dazzle the country with his message of hope and possibility. But we shouldn’t expect much to actually get done.