GoogleIt Mail IT Print IT PermaLinkWhat Does A Community Organizer Do?
09:48:17 PM

In last night's speeches a the RNC, there were a number of very derisive comments about Barack Obama's experience as a community organizer. Governor Palin said "I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities.” It was a great one-liner.

I've looked around for actual descriptions of what community organizers do, and I've found some, but I haven't found a comparable one-liner. So here's mine.

A community organizer does things for the people that the mayor, the city council, and other politicians and public officials can't or won't do.

Or, as the web site of the Neighborhood Funders Group says:

CO organizations seek to change policies and institutions that are not working.

Community organizers are people who get things done without having direct authority, and they do it by mobilizing people and empowering people to do things for themselves. Or they do it by helping a community recognize its untapped political capital, bring it out of a dormant outside-the-system state, and use that capital wisely and effectively. The community can be small or large by the way. Now, I don't know what the population of the South Side of Chicago was 20 years ago (if any Chicago area readers care to enlighten me, please do), but the total population of the city was a little below 3 million back then, so it seems to me that any subset of the South Side population large enough to be considered a community is likely substantially larger than the 5500 people of Wasilla, Alaska. It seems to me that whatever the actual number, it had to have been a rather large number of people to take responsbility for, despite having no formal authority.

And to the expected rejoinder that this may all be true, but it has nothing to do with executive experience, I simply say this: It's about getting things done. And as anyone who has ever been in a senior technology leadership role, managing projects, but in non-management position knows: getting good things done when you don't have any actual authority is a very necessary and under-recognized skill. It's a lot harder, and frequently a lot more impressive than doing it when you have the decision-making and spending authority.

And here's what Joe Klein says about what Barack Obama really did as a community organizer.

Obama was working for a group of churches that were concerned about their parishioners, many of whom had been laid off when the steel mills closed on the south side of Chicago. They hired Obama to help those stunned people recover and get the services they needed--job training, help with housing and so forth--from the local government. It was, dare I say it, the Lord's work--the sort of mission Jesus preached (as opposed to the war in Iraq, which Palin described as a "task from God.")

This is what Palin and Giuliani were mocking. They were making fun of a young man's decision "to serve a cause greater than himself," in the words of John McCain. They were, therefore, mocking one of their candidate's favorite messages. Obama served the poor for three years, then went to law school. To describe this service--the first thing he did out of college, the sort of service every college-educated American should perform, in some form or other--as anything other than noble is cheap and tawdry and cynical in the extreme.

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Comments :v

1. Bruce Perry09/05/2008 01:20:28 AM

I wish I could remember where I saw this first. I'll happily give credit where it is due.

"Jesus was a community organizer. Pontius Pilate was a governor."

2. Timothy Briley09/05/2008 03:55:30 AM

Thanks for the definition of community organizer. It sounds good to me.

But "Jesus was a community organizer". is just wrong based on your definition. Sounds good, but not accurate. I can't think of a thing that Jesus tried to get from the local government.

Obama graduated from Columbia in 1983 but didn't move to Chicago until 1985. There he answered an ad in a trade publication and wound up being hired by the Developing Communities Project.

His pay wasn't a lot, but it wasn't bad given that it was the 80's and that Obama was two years out of college with a poly sci degree. Jerry Kellman, the man who hired Obama, said that the $12,000 was Obama's "training salary" for the first few months. "After three or four months, he was up to 20,000, and after three years he was probably making $35,000 or so."

The purpose of his job was to basically to be a lobbyist, to get the local government to provide more services to the people in the area around the churches that hired him.

There's nothing wrong with this job, and it certainly had responsibilities that he fulfilled, else he would have been fired. Yes, he served the poor, but that's what he was paid decent money to do.

3. Tim Tripcony09/05/2008 09:36:43 AM

@2 - Couple minor points:

Barack didn't move to Chicago until after he'd been offered and accepted the CO position. In fact, his new boss gave him an advance of a few hundred dollars so he could buy a clunker of a car, which he used to get to Chicago so he could start working.

Richard's "one-liner" actually does touch on the primary focus of Jesus' ministry: not lobbying the government to change their policies, but standing up to it where he saw injustice and hypocrisy, and more importantly, inspiring "ordinary" citizens to take back control of their own lives and communities. The government of that area and era was incredibly corrupt, and interwove every aspect of its policies with faith, in an attempt to provide their injust policies a divine justification. Jesus confronted that establishment, showing clearly how that particular implementation of the same system we have (namely, a few people in power deciding how everyone should live) was failing to meet the needs of the average citizen. But even when people tried to poke holes in his message by tricking him into saying something that would be unpopular, he demonstrated an uncanny knack for keeping things in perspective.

My favorite example was when someone tried to trap Jesus by asking if he should have to pay taxes, which, like it still is today, was a very touchy subject. Theoretically, if he had simply said yes, he might anger the average Joe, who felt that their money was theirs and they should be able to keep it; an unqualified no would be dangerously rebellious, questioning the government's authority to tax its citizens. His response put things back into perspective: he asked the guy if he had a coin handy, which he did.

"Whose picture is on it?"
"Render unto Caesar what it is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."

4. mark hughes09/05/2008 09:44:33 AM

Obamas problem with this is, when most people hear "community organizer", they think of Al Sharpton, or Jesse Jackson.

We have some in Houston as well, that call themselves that, but really they just get money from companies so they will not call them racist.

Unfortanatley, like the title of Catholic Priest, community organizer has some bad characters that have made very public mistakes.

One thing that is interesting is that with a community organizer, every wrong is someone elses fault, when you are the mayor everything is your fault.

5. Timothy Briley09/05/2008 10:29:31 AM

A few more notes. As far as I can tell, (and good sources are amazingly hard to come by considering the subject is the favorite to be the next POTUS), Obama's community organizer work has two time periods, 1985 - 1988, and then part-time after law school, 1992 until he ran for the state senate in 1997.

I referenced the first period in @2 and I'm guessing this is the period that Richard is referencing as well. From what I can tell, his work was confined to the Altgeld Garden housing project, 1400 homes that currently house 3400 people.

The second period of community organizing was different from the first, but that's why he went to law school, to be more effective in effecting change. And that's when things get a bit interesting. His main job was teaching law, but he also worked with a group called ACORN.

As far as I can tell, ACORN is a group with good intentions that operates via questionable methods. Once again, details about this period are hard to dig up, so I'll share what I found. Many of you will call it one-sided and you might be right. Feel free to share counter-points (if Richard doesn't mind, I don't want to hijack his blog). I think this group would be interested in reading articles from a variety of sources. It makes for a more informed discussion. Anyway, here's my link to an article on Obama and ACORN:

6. Marc Harting09/05/2008 02:18:00 PM

"Jesus was a community organizer. Pontius Pilate was a governor."

"Community organizers are people who get things done without having direct authority, and they do it by mobilizing people and empowering people to do things for themselves."

Using that logic you could say that Adolf Hitler was a community organizer too.

Just as wrong and just as offensive.

7. Bruce Perry09/05/2008 03:32:01 PM

I'm missing some of the steps in your logic. I'm failing to see how you can call Hitler a community organizer based on these quotes.

What am I missing?

8. RIchard Schwartz09/05/2008 04:24:05 PM

@7 Bruce -- if you consider before he had the authority, then I can see the analogy. But it is tenuous at best, and it is only due to the fact that we're dealing with the one-liner description.

@6 Marc -- this is the problem with a one-liner. Unfortunately, I forgot to post the link to the full description of what a Community Organizer does, which I found on the Neighborhood Funders Group site. I'll go back in this evening and find the link and post an update. I'm confident that the full description will clearly rule out Hitler as a bona fide CO. I'm also confident that any flaws due to the over-simplication inherent in my one-liner are matched by the flaws inherent in the over-simplification of Gov. Palin's one-liner, and that's the real point!

9. Marc Robson09/05/2008 05:58:33 PM

I think you are missing the key point of the one-liner : 'actual responsibilities'. A mayor is full time 365X7 responsible for the town. A CO is not responsible for anything. They may have goals, but do not have responsibilities (not truly accountable for results - e.g. if he cannot get job training, then "CO did all he could, but it is the bad evil government's fault"). If the CO actually accomplishes something, it is likely that the mayor (or one of his/her staff) of the municipality had to assist the CO in actually doing whatever it was - as you admit, the CO has no actual authority.

And frankly this is a false argument - no one ever said that being a CO is bad. It is worthwhile work, the type that McCain clearly praised as you correctly cite. But when Obama ignores that she is a governor and instead belittles her having been a mayor in the past, the comparison of previous job experience is very apt. Mayor is simply better preparation for being a governor/president than community organizer. I am not claiming that mayor is more fulfilling or more important or better service to humanity or more anything else other than preparation for President.

In my opinion, BOTH Palin and Obama are LIGHT in the experience category when it comes to the office of POTUS. Either makes a fine VPOTUS candidate though.

To extend that, Governor is better preparation for being a President than Senator (or state legislator). Both US and state legislatures are part time. Obama had two other jobs while being in the Il statehouse for how many weeks per year? By contrast, a governor is "in session" every day, all year long.

The types of decisions are completely different between executives (mayors, governors) who are THE final voice and legislators who are one voice among many.

You will be posting a revised description of CO, but obviously this is a position which varies tremendously, so a generic description will include much more than Obama ever considered. To be fair, will you be posting a complete list of a mayor's duties?

AND when comparing, stick to fair comparisons: Obama as CO and state legislator to Palin as Mayor. Obama as US Senator to Palin as Governor. Don't mix and match.

10. Tim Tripcony09/06/2008 07:37:28 PM

I'm intrigued to see how this debate ends up translating into votes. Hillary made the same argument, that experience is what qualifies a candidate for the job; Barack argued that judgment was more important, and he secured the nomination.

Most, if not all, of us have seen a miniature version of this played out in our own careers: a hiring manager chooses a candidate because they have decades of experience, only to find that they still approach all their decisions with a 1980 mindset, refusing to listen to "noobs" because they've only been out of college two years and couldn't possibly have any good ideas yet.

One of the best programmers I know graduated from college 3 months ago and he can already code in circles around most Domino developers - not because he's somehow compressed decades of experience into 90 days, but because he gets what works and what doesn't, and why. So he picks up new concepts more rapidly, and - most importantly - he often just knows the right way to approach something without even being told.

You can teach someone techniques, but you can't teach them judgment. That was the argument that worked for Barack against Hillary, and might against McCain as well: with poor judgment, you can do the same job for 35 years and still make the wrong decisions... but if you have good judgment, you're more likely to make the right decision even if you've never had to make the same decision before. The risk in hiring any candidate (including POTUS) is not knowing for certain before you hire them whether they'll turn out to be that prodigy who has an instinct for getting the job done right the first time (and knows how to keep learning from the mistakes they'll still occasionally make) or that complete chode who - because of, not in spite of, their experience - already thinks they've learned everything but still produces abysmal results.

11. Timothy Briley09/06/2008 10:01:12 PM

@10 - It's because "Barack argued that judgment was more important, and he secured the nomination." AND his lack of experience that people are looking to Barack's past in an effort to judge his judgment.

One of the areas being looked at are the judgments he made in who to associate with. And his association with Jeremiah Wright, William Ayers, and Tony Rezko each cause the casual voter to go "Why in the world did Obama spend time with that guy?"

12. Rob McDonagh09/07/2008 07:54:06 AM

@11 By the same token that Obama "associated" with William Ayers because he was in the same room with him, I have "associated" much more strongly with some extreme right-wing conservatives. After all, we're all part of this "blogosphere" community. We all are "members" of PlanetLotus. We all participated in something called "Lotusphere." And yet, I disagree quite strongly with those individuals. See how that works? It's an inane argument. Everyone knows people that they don't agree with or like particularly much.

The Rev Wright issue strikes me as odd, too, based on my personal experience. My parents hate (that is not too strong a word, believe me) the political opinions of their priest, but they do not get up and walk out during his sermons. He has said a number of truly outrageous things over the years, and they grumble at home, not in public. Nor do they change parishes, even though there are several available, some of which align very closely with their political opinions. Why don't they move? Because the priest's political opinions are secondary, to them. They're interested in the community, not the figurehead. I don't know if the same is true with respect to the Obamas, but it's at least as likely as the odds of a public servant hating his country.

And while we're talking about Obama's pastor, does anyone know who McCain's is? Doesn't he still refuse to identify his church, other than by denomination? And have you seen what Sarah Palin's pastors have said about the attacks on Israel being just punishment for refusing to accept Jesus? We can all play this game, and it proves absolutely nothing about the way the candidates will perform in the White House.

13. Rob McDonagh09/07/2008 08:35:05 AM

@11 To clarify, I'm not saying that YOU are inane. You didn't make up the argument, it has been raised by our punditocracy in the MSM. They'll do anything for a story, and I distrust both their motives and their judgment. But not because they hang out with each other all the time.

14. Timothy Briley09/07/2008 11:44:25 AM

@12 Rob, I assume your aren't running for political office and are using a stategy of "trust me, I have good judgement" as a major strategy. So who your parents associate with will probably not affect their professional goals.

BTW, I've been going to church for most of my life and I can't think of a single instance of hearing politics from the pulpit, so your comments about your parents experience intrigues me.

"By the same token that Obama "associated" with William Ayers because he was in the same room with him...".

Concerning Ayers, It's quite a bit more than just being in the same room. Ayers founded the Chicago Annenberg Challenge and Obama served as the head of the board president. During Obama’s time as Annenberg board chairman, Ayers’s own education projects received substantial funding, to the point that the Chicago Annenberg Challenge struggled with significant concerns about possible conflicts of interest. So when Ayers and Dorhn hosted the kickoff for the first Obama campaign, it was further evidence of a close and ongoing political partnership. So when Obama describes Ayers as "the professor in the neighborhood", it appears disingenuous.

Whether the is anything wrong with Obama's relationships with Ayers, Wright, and Rezko isn't really the issue. The issue is what kind of judgment is Obama showing by putting himself in these situations.

15. Rob McDonagh09/07/2008 05:26:44 PM

@14 So if the Ayers "relationship" (I don't agree there really is one, btw, because nothing you mentioned strikes me as problematic. Besides, if there was a "close and ongoing political partnership," where has Ayers been ever since? It's been over ten years, why doesn't he have a role in the rest of Obama's career? At all?) is fair game, will you be nodding quietly when Democrats attack Gov Palin for chairing Senator Stevens' PAC, thus making her a key cog in the Republican Culture of Corruption? The fact that Stevens wasn't publicly known to be corrupt at the time is no more relevant than the fact that Ayers was a respected professor at a prestigious university when Obama met him, right?

re: politics in Church, every social issue is inherently political. When the Priest preaches about the sanctity of life (against abortion), that's a political statement. Likewise, a sermon about the sanctity of marriage (against gay rights) is a political statement. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with preaching about those topics; they're just as legitimately religious as they are political. And I don't want to discuss either issue - there's no way to have either discussion in less than 30,000 words. The point is that those topics, and others (bigotry against Jews, sexism, and classism in this particular case) come up with regularity in their home parish. You might enjoy some of those sermons, at a guess, but they definitely do not. By your standards, if they run for political office in thoroughly liberal Massachusetts, a more liberal opponent could attack them for attending that Church.

16. Timothy Briley09/08/2008 09:05:36 AM

@15 - Indeed, the time that has elapsed since Obama and Ayers worked together might be just the thing that ultimately makes it a non-issue with undecided voters.

And Palin's history with Stevens might be a problem for her, although her overall history of fighting the "Republican Culture of Corruption" in Alaska may make it a non-issue with undecided voters as well.

You raise an interesting point about church. Pro gay marriage abortion rights supporting Catholic politicians catch it from within the Church all the time, Pelosi being a very recent example.

But I have yet to hear of any catching it in the other direction and I wonder why. My guess is that the politician's opponent also goes to a church whose doctrine is opposed to gay marriage and abortion rights. But that's just a guess? Any ideas?

17. Marc Robson09/08/2008 09:46:51 AM

Kudos to all for keeping this discussion respectable. That is the great thing about America - we can politely disagree.

Comparing Ayers to Stevens is apples and oranges. As you point out, Stevens was NOT known to be corrupt - he was hiding his 'bad side'. So why wouldn't you associate with him? On the other hand, Ayers publicly brags 'we didn't do enough' (bombing of innocent wives and children). His actions and opinions were well known and were the reason for his professorship. Now some people (such as that university) do not consider Ayers' actions to be so bad and they are free to their opinion. Obama also appears to consider Ayers' actions to be acceptable.

I disagree.

Once Steven's corruption became known, wasn't Palin involved in investigating and denouncing him?

THAT is the comparison on judgment that I notice.

18. Timothy Briley09/08/2008 11:05:07 AM

@17 - Marc, I have to disagree to a point.

Let's be clear. Obama HAS condemned Ayers violent past.

But Ayers subsequent lack of repentance did not prevent Obama from working with him.

19. Richard Schwartz09/08/2008 10:35:09 PM

Wow. This discussion has gone in some interesting directions while I've been too distracted to respond.

Re Ayers: His radical period ended 20 years before he met Senator Obama (who, just to be clear, was not yet a Senator). He had lived underground for several years, then turned himself in back in 1980. He was not involved in the murderous 1981 Brinks robbery that a few other former Weathermen were involved in. He was never charged with a crime, due to government misconduct that blew the case -- "black bag job" breakins authorized by Mark Felt, the same FBI agent who eventually revealed that he was Woodward and Bernstein's "Deep Throat" source in the Watergate investigation.

And had he been charged, he would be a free man by now. The Weathermen's radical acts were carefully planned to not take lives. The only fatalities were three of the Weathermen, who were killed when a bomb they were building exploded. He has, apparently, lived an exemplary life of teaching and civic service since then.

It is correct that he has never fully renounced his radical activities against the Vietnam War, and has even claimed that their activities saved lives by disrupting society and hastening the end of the Vietnam War. To my knowledge, howver, there is no evidence that he has ever practiced or taught radicalism since the Weathermen dissolved in the mid 70s.

And it is my understanding that Ayers and Obama first met on the board of the Woods Fund in 1995... because Ayers was put on that board by Mayor Daley after Obama was already on it. Was Obama supposed to hold himself above the opinion of the Mayor of his city, and shun a man who had long since given up radicalism, had never been convicted of a crime and was now living a life of service? To suggest that he should have done that just seems petty to me.

20. Marc Robson09/09/2008 01:43:42 PM

Convicted or not, he has admitted guilt. Didn't he leave his trial bragging something like "Guilty as sin and free to go". He has admitted guilt in many interviews. So the lack of a formal conviction does not change my opinion - there is no doubt of his actions.

Destruction of private property and risking lives of innocent people is not political speech.

Some people consider his debt to society as paid (or non-existent since he was not convicted). As long as he is proud of those actions, I consider him to be unworthy of professional association. This is only my opinion.

My concern about Ayers / Obama is not that they were _placed_ on a board together. It is that Ayers seems to be a guiding force in Obama's professional life. 1) Ayers appointed Obama to the Annenberg Foundation (large salary, large influence doling out grants to groups which then assisted in Obama's campaigns); 2) Ayers kicked off Obama's first candidacy - Ayer's connections, fundraising and clout.

I have not seen Obama denouce Ayers' actions. Please link to it. I would further expect Obama to denounce Ayers Sept 11 comments supporting the 9/11 attacks and bragging of his own attacks.

This however is my personal opinion. Some people might not think it matters.

Sorry for the thread-jacking. The original was not focused on Ayers/Obama; not sure how it moved.

21. Marc Robson09/09/2008 01:48:34 PM

I want to ask though : does anyone here actually believe that Palin's comments were intended to ridicule volunteers?

Of course not. Just like Obama ridiculing Palin as a small town mayor is not intended to say mayors are unimportant. Right?

Both were suggesting that a central component of their opponent's claim of qualifications does not rise to the level of presidential. Mayors are good. COs are good.

I suspect this is simply partisan posturing trying to cause your opponents to be seen in the worst light possible. It is not really worth discussion here (an intelligent, non-partisan venue). If you want to have a polite political discussion (which has impressively been the case so far), we should debate actual issues instead of this type of non-issue.

22. Timothy Briley09/23/2008 01:08:48 PM

More on Obama - Ayers here:

A big issue is this. The statement from the Obama campaign:
"The Annenberg Challenge records only serve to establish clearly that while Barack Obama and Ayers had occasional contact during Obama’s 6 years of service on the bipartisan board, they did not work closely together to exchange and develop policy ideas."

doesn't hold up in light of what the Annenberg Challenge records show:
"As board chair and president of the CAC corporation, Obama was authorized to “delegate to the Collaborative the development of collaborative projects and programs . . . to obtain assistance of the Collaborative in the development of requests for proposals . . . and to seek advice from the Collaborative regarding the programmatic aspects of grant proposals.” All this clearly involves significant consultation between the board, headed by Obama, and the Collaborative, co-chaired by Ayers."

Clearly Ayers is more than 'a Professor that lives in the neighborhood'. The relationship itself may or may not be bad depending on your point of view. Denying the nature of the reslationship looks really bad.

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