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.