Barack Obama, Community Organizer

Several commenters have been discussing Obama’s role as a community organizer. Some have already put up links in the comments. I’ll add all links to this post so we have a collection of information on this topic.

According to this article in The Nation, Obama moved to Chicago in 1985, a little more than a year after he graduated from Columbia University in NYC. He was 24 years old. He was hired by Jerry Kellman, a Chicago organizer, to lead the Developing Communities Project (DCP), which would target African American neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side by working with African American churches in the area. During Obama’s time as a community organizer, Harold Washington was serving as Chicago’s first black mayor. This was a source of hope and inspiration for Obama and other blacks and progressives in the city.

Obama described the work of a community organizer in a chapter he wrote for a 1990 book called After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois.

In theory, community organizing provides a way to merge various strategies for neighborhood empowerment. Organizing begins with the premise that (1) the problems facing inner-city communities do not result from a lack of effective solutions, but from a lack of power to implement these solutions; (2) that the only way for communities to build long-term power is by organizing people and money around a common vision; and (3) that a viable organization can only be achieved if a broadly based indigenous leadership — and not one or two charismatic leaders — can knit together the diverse interests of their local institutions.

This means bringing together churches, block clubs, parent groups and any other institutions in a given community to pay dues, hire organizers, conduct research, develop leadership, hold rallies and education cam­paigns, and begin drawing up plans on a whole range of issues — jobs, education, crime, etc. Once such a vehicle is formed, it holds the power to make politicians, agencies and corporations more responsive to commu­nity needs. Equally important, it enables people to break their crippling isolation from each other, to reshape their mutual values and expectations and rediscover the possibilities of acting collaboratively — the prerequi­sites of any successful self-help initiative.

As jawbone mentioned in the comments, Obama was trained to work in the Alinsky method of community organizing.

Saul Alinsky, the radical University of Chicago-trained social scientist. At the heart of the Alinsky method is the concept of “agitation”–making someone angry enough about the rotten state of his life that he agrees to take action to change it; or, as Alinsky himself described the job, to “rub raw the sores of discontent.”

Obama’s first mentor was an organizer named Mike Kruglik, who says Obama was “the best student he ever had.”

He was a natural, the undisputed master of agitation, who could engage a room full of recruiting targets in a rapid-fire Socratic dialogue, nudging them to admit that they were not living up to their own standards….he could be aggressive and confrontational. With probing, sometimes personal questions, he would pinpoint the source of pain in their lives, tearing down their egos just enough before dangling a carrot of hope that they could make things better.

In terms of concrete accomplishments, Obama and “hundreds of other organizers” were not able to transform the South Side neighborhoods or bring in new industries to provide jobs. Obama’s most commonly cited achievement was in forcing the city to begin testing for asbestos in all city apartments. The work did have a powerful impact on Obama himself.

“I can’t say we didn’t make mistakes, that I knew what I was doing,” Obama recalled three years ago to a boisterous convention of the still-active DCP. “Sometimes I called a meeting, and nobody showed up. Sometimes preachers said, ‘Why should I listen to you?’ Sometimes we tried to hold politicians accountable, and they didn’t show up. I couldn’t tell whether I got more out of it than this neighborhood.”

After three years, Obama left Chicago to attend Harvard Law School. When he returned, he continued to stay in touch with the community organizations he had worked with previously. Ryan Lizza writes that

Organizing remained central to Obama long after his stint on the South Side. In the 13 years between Obama’s return to Chicago from law school and his Senate campaign, he was deeply involved with the city’s constellation of community-organizing groups. He wrote about the subject. He attended organizing seminars. He served on the boards of foundations that support community organizing. He taught Alinsky’s concepts and methods in workshops. When he first ran for office in 1996, he pledged to bring the spirit of community organizing to his job in the state Senate.

It does appear that his history of community organizing is central to Obama’s identity, seemingly even more important to him than his work as a legislator. The mystery is how with all this community activity, Obama managed to remain ignorant of the fact that his benefactor, Antoin Rezko, wasn’t paying utility bills for his tenents, many of whom lived in Obama’s IL state senate district.

Obama, who has worked as a lawyer and a legislator to improve living conditions for the poor, took campaign donations from Rezko even as Rezko’s low-income housing empire was collapsing, leaving many African-American families in buildings riddled with problems — including squalid living conditions, vacant apartments, lack of heat, squatters and drug dealers.

Conflucians, please react and add your own links and insights. I will continue to update this post.

Update 1: more articles on Obama’s career as a community organizer.

Portrait of a Pragmatist
On the Streets of Chicago
Obama Forged Path as Chicago Community Organizer

Update 2: In the LA Times article (3rd on above list) it says that Obama successfully organized cooperation between the neighborhoods and the park department to improve safety in several parks. It also says he has been criticized for exaggerating his role in making changes, particularly in connection with the asbestos story I mentioned in the main post.