Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Obama the Community Organizer

"Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have."

"Change means movement. Movement means friction."

Saul Alinsky

Sometimes the media doesn't quite know what to make of Barack Obama's community organizing interlude in Chicago, even Ryan Lizza in Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama. Was it being down and out with the people? Was it a fancy name for being a social worker? Was it the training ground for the larger rough-and-tumble scene of Chicago politics? Or, was it learning a disciplined methodology for making change?

Dreams of My Father doesn't exactly clarify the matter. It offers one of the best, most sobering, accounts of community organizing in a low-income community -- the wonderful relationships and leaders, the ups and downs of staged community meetings, the rival streetcorner powerbrokers, and the sometimes meager victories. No wonder that a lot of Alinsky-style organizing eventually gave up on neighborhoods and sought the more solid membership and relationship bases of religious congregations.

What I learned from reading about Saul Alinsky in books like Sanford Horwitt's Let Them Call Me Rebel was that being a community organizer was like being an impressario who orchestrated funders, allies, building-block organizations, leaders, and even the "enemy," whoever that might be. Some called this manipulation. Others called it the fine art of power politics. It was all about setting the stage for what Alinsky called political Jiu-Jitsu. Obama's effective campaigns are no accident.

In the 1980s the Chicago Tribune lambasted many of us community development progressives for holding up development for "ideological reasons." See my Nonprofit Leadership. Good community organizers, the Trib's urban affairs columnist thought, were pragmatists who knew when to settle, take the deal, and move on to other issues. Of course the art of organizing is when to bluff, fold, or simply hold steady.

One can sense a community organizer at work as Obama tacks left and right, building coalitions, and searching for pragmatic, winnable solutions.

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