Monday, September 1, 2008

Barack Obama's Disillusionment

"T]he most important thing to know about Barack Obama's time as a community organizer in Chicago may not be what he gained in knowledge from the experience -- but rather why, in late 1987, he decided to quit."

John B. Judis. "Creation Myth: What Barack Obama won't tell you about his community organizing past," The New Republic, September 10, 2008.

I don't think so. Barack Obama exceeded the average tenure of most community organizers by a long shot during a tumultuous period in Chicago history that witnessed deindustrialization and the collapse of communities that depended upon those jobs and businesses. During the same period, across the country, old-style Alinsky organizing gave way to a new, congregation-based model of regional organizing. Obama lasted three years plus and continued to support community organizing in the years to come. Not bad.

For the many people who have worked in the community change trenches and moved on, like myself, it's no contradiction for them, decades later, to identify those few intense years as a continuing source of learning, inspiration, and frustration. Sometimes we learn the most from our failures and the recognition of our limits. Those years of trying to walk in someone else's shoes create indelibly-vivid memories of the meaning of "have nots."

A few historical comments for Judis. SON/SOC (the white ethnic community coalition in Chicago during the 1980s) also advocated a linkage program between booming downtown development and the neighborhoods, a long-time plank of neighborhood populism. And Mayor Harold Washington had won a majority in the City Council by 1987, not that a majority was enough in the context of Reaganomics to turn around the steel industry and conditions in communities like Roseland. Finally, the inside/outside creative tensions between the administration of Harold Washington and the community/union/progressive advocates of Chicago is still to be written. Barack Obama is already facing similar tensions in his campaign as he seeks to build a governing coalition and agenda.

Judis argues that Obama traded in the community organizing principle of "self interest" (or why people act together) for the vision thing and a belief in the importance of charismatic leaders like Harold Washington. Many did the same. Whether building upon the "values" base of religious institutions, the progressive coalitions of ACORN, or the many varieties of "citizen action" advocacy, community organizing has gone way beyond the simple "self interest" motivations of old-style Alinsky organizing. Two of Judis's interviewees, Jody Kretzmann and John McKnight, even wrote a Social Policy article in the 1980s announcing the end of community organizing as we knew it.

But Judis wrote this article to support a clever point. His punchline question is whether Obama is willing to redisover his community organizing roots and "speak to the self-interest of ordinary people" in order to win a majority. Like Hillary or John Edwards, right? McCain?

That's not a bad piece of advice. But let's not forget that Obama's campaign represents the best of community organizing -- running a great ground campaign, building a broad coalition for change, and talking honestly about what it takes to make change. Spicing it with some self interest wouldn't hurt, but it's no longer sufficient for good politics or good community organizing.

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