Thursday, August 28, 2008

Obama and Community Organizing


Creation Myth
What Barack Obama won't tell you about his community organizing past.
John B. Judis, The New Republic Published: Wednesday, September 10, 2008
http://www.tnr.com/story_print.html?id=2e0a7836-b897-4155-864c-25e791ff0f50
I found this essay very useful and well written. John Judis, at the New Republic. I think he was formerly at ITT, and in Chicago. At the same time, I have some criticisms.
The stuff Judis writes about community organizing is well said. The implications which he draws are often not well developed.
Yes, Barack Obama left community organizing. Most community organizers do. It is a hard, difficult, often not sustaining experience. We learn the skills of organizing and then we go on to use these skills in other locations, not the hard knocks of most urban neighborhoods.

1. There is nothing wrong about moving on from organizing.
I know well two outstanding, nationally recognized community organizers. ( and several more)
These two were at the top of their professions and their organizations. They devoted over 10 years to the struggle, some in Chicago.
After rising to the top, and staying there for a decade, they each left to become teachers. As teachers they were excellent. They had regular hours, regular salaries, and could clearly see the progress of their students. They were happier as teachers than as organizers. Sanity and humanity encourages you moving on. And, in the case of Obama, he continued to search for platforms where he could do good.

2. J. Judis makes a major case of Barack moving away from the hard principle of Alinksy, work from self interest not from appeals to moral principles. This seems like a good move.
In California the PICO organizing community developed out of, and by leaving, the Alinksy based IAF organizing on precisely this issue.
That is, many organizers do not agree that only self interest rules. There are other variables, like the race issues raised well in the article.
Judis argues that Barack may have gone too far in abandoning this core principle. I don't think so. ( nor does PICO). Rather, he applied another core principle; adjust to your environment. Read your constituency and work within their frames of interest. Listen to the authentic voices of the people.
Often, it is not a choice between self interest and moral principles. Rather, if you look for solutions, you can find places where self interests and moral principles combine. It is not an either-or choice. At best it is a both and choice.

3. So, then, what does the Obama campaign take from community organizing that informs his potential presidency?
You need to train organizers. ( the campaign is doing this).
Organizers need discipline. they need a strategy.
In this case organizers learn skills. It is not only voter mobilization, but skill development also.

These keys are valuable. They were essential to organizers trained by the United Farmworkers union which in a very real way helped to re-organize Latino politics in the U.S. See here: http://www.farmworkermovement.org/news/index.php
And, hopefully, they will be of value during and after the Obama campaign.

Duane Campbell
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