Frances Fox Piven, a prominent theorist of socialism and community organizing, was a fixture in Barack Obama’s political world. On the same day in 1996 that Obama became a member of Chicago’s leftist New Party, for example, the Chicago chapter announced a forthcoming event featuring Piven, herself an esteemed New Party activist. With Piven a leading presence at the Socialist Scholars Conferences Obama attended in New York City in the mid-1980s, and an influential force behind the voter-registration efforts he collaborated on with ACORN in the early 1990s, it is reasonable to assume that Obama had at least a passing familiarity with Piven’s writings — and probably a great deal more than that.
But did Obama and Piven ever meet? There is some intriguing evidence that suggests they may have done so.
A flier preserved in the Frances Fox Piven Papers housed in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College advertises a “Community Forum” on “Federal Budget Cuts ‘85–‘86.” The forum was designed to drum up opposition to President Reagan’s domestic-spending reductions.
The event was co-sponsored by the group Obama led, the City College of New York (CCNY) branch of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), and the CCNY student government. The panelists consisted of an unnamed “representative of Congressman Charles Rangel’s office,” Piven, and Joyce Weinstein, Legislative Coordinator for the NYC Office of Management and Budget.
#more#The forum took place on May 8, 1985, at the Harris Auditorium, CCNY, at 138th and Convent Avenue. The flier was on the letterhead of CCNY office of NYPIRG at “Math Hut, Room 913, 138th St. And Convent Avenue, New York, NY.”
According to this article on Obama’s time at NYPIRG, the office Obama worked in was located in a “trailer . . . just below 140th Street and Convent Avenue.” Obama is said to have worked for NYPIRG “from February through late May” of 1985, so Piven’s appearance under CCNY NYPIRG sponsorship would have taken place exactly when Obama was heading the group. The flier touts Piven as the co-author of The New Class War and Poor People’s Movements.
Presumably, as the head of CCNY NYPIRG at the time, Obama could have hosted and introduced this event. It also seems possible that Obama himself might have recruited Piven to appear, although we cannot be certain of that.
A second NYPIRG flier near the one just described in the Piven Papers, this one under the letterhead of NYPIRG’s central office, highlights President Reagan’s budget cuts, detailing their impact on student financial aid in New York State. A hand notation at the top of the flier reads “May 7 or 8.” This would appear to be Piven’s notation to herself about the provisional date of her upcoming CCNY NYPIRG forum appearance.
David Maraniss notes in his new biography that in the winter of 1985, Obama “took a busload of students down to Washington,” where they lobbied Congress to “restore federal student aid cut by the Reagan administration.” The Piven event is certainly fits well with what Obama was doing at the time.
It also fits with Obama’s attitude during this period. As Obama reports in Dreams from My Father, he was hoping for “change in the White House, where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds.”
We can only speculate on precisely how Piven was invited to appear at a CCNY NYPIRG forum during a time when Obama ran the group. Did Obama, for example, hand Piven the second flier at the April 4–6, 1985, Socialist Scholars Conference, where he could easily have met her, in order to arrange her appearance a month later at the NYPIRG forum?
At any rate, I don’t wish to make too much of this incident. It merely adds an intriguing, if inconclusive, bit of new information to what we already know: Obama was immersed for years in a political world in which Piven was a leading figure. Even so, at a time when the public is preoccupied by tales of Obama’s high-school basketball playing, drug habits, and love letters, it seemed worth adding this little footnote to the mix. It is entirely possible that Obama and Piven met in 1985, that Obama was acquainted with her writings, and even that Obama may have taken the initiative to invite Piven to be a featured speaker at one of his NYPIRG events.