As the U.S. steel industry collapsed in the late 1970s, so did communities in South Chicago and Northwest Indiana that depended on steel and other manufacturing jobs. At the same time, people in these once stable blue-collar neighborhoods were also facing other challenges, from pollution to neighborhood racial change.
Looking for solutions, some residents like Margaret Bagby turned to new community organizations. “Why did I get involved?” Bagby says. “Jobs were down in our community. The waste dumps were killing us gradually. The water was polluted. We were trying to get day-care slots for the single-female families and to reduce drug use in the community. There were a lot of things we were trying to change.”
Bagby was on the board of the Developing Communities Project (DCP), a community-organizing venture focused on Chicago’s South Side African-American neighborhoods. It was an offshoot of the Calumet Community Religious Conference (CCRC), an organization based in religious congregations seeking to save jobs and communities in the region. In 1985, Bagby served on a committee to interview organizer candidates, and one of them – one they hired – stood out as “awesome.” He was a recent graduate of Columbia University with an unusual name: Barack Obama.
Now, as he campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination, Barack Obama is drawing on his community-organizing experience, comparing his candidacy to a grass-roots project and frequently referring to lessons he learned as an organizer.
“He’s given community organizing a good name,” remarks Jackie Kendall, executive director of the Midwest Academy, a Chicago-based organizer training center. “My mother will know what I do now after all these years.”
But while Obama’s national prominence may draw unprecedented media focus to community organizing, his personal journey-particularly his shift to electoral politics as his arena for action-also highlights the limits of at least one model of traditional community organizing in achieving its goals.
Like many of his colleagues in the field, Obama grew frustrated with the incapacity of neighborhood-based organizations to challenge the powerful political and economic forces that shaped the lives of local residents. Nevertheless, even when he turned to elective office as a more powerful vantage point from which to pursue the objectives that had drawn him to organizing, he continued to work with grass-roots groups and the larger networks they have formed to increase their clout.
When Obama ran for his first elected post in the Illinois state Senate, he laid out a vision of the politician as political organizer, an expression of his hope in a political “third way.” He saw it as an alternative to what he viewed as false polarities-the civil-rights movement’s integrationist goals versus black nationalism, and the antagonisms between community organizing and traditional politics.
“What if a politician were to see his job as that of an organizer,” he told reporter Hank De Zutter in a 1995 article in the Chicago Reader, “as part teacher and part advocate, one who does not sell voters short but who educates them about the real choices before them? As an elected public official, for instance, I could bring church and community leaders together easier than I could as a community organizer or lawyer. We would come together to form concrete economic development strategies, take advantage of existing laws and structures, and create bridges and bonds within all sectors of the community. We must form grassroots structures that would hold me and other elected officials more accountable for their actions.” As a politician, he has not always fulfilled those lofty ideals, but they still animate his presidential campaign.
One thing is clear about Obama: No matter what he learned on the streets of South Chicago, in the classrooms of Harvard Law School, in the church he joined or in the gritty politics of the Illinois Senate, he had the air of a “natural.” When Kendall first met Obama shortly after he came to Chicago, she recalls telling her husband, “I just met somebody we’re going to say we knew him when. He just had some quality about him, something special. I can count the number of times I’ve said that on one hand. It was just a presence and self-assurance about him at such a young age.”
And after Obama became DCP’s director, Bagby recalls, “I said, ‘What am I doing following this young boy?’ But he was just so knowledgeable, and he knew just how to get you to do what you needed to do, and he knew what we needed to do. I never knew anybody who could lead somebody without them knowing he was leading.”
But even a natural needs some training and practice. Gerald Kellman, who first recruited Obama, taught him the basics, and he also learned from organizing trainers associated with the Gamaliel Foundation and the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). Both organize community groups, primarily religious congregations, and trace their lineage to Saul Alinsky.
Alinsky, the patron saint of contemporary community organizing, started working in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, next to the Chicago Stockyards. In 1941 he established the IAF, envisioning his neighborhood work as a complement to industrial union organizing.
Neighborhood churches were important institutions in Alinsky’s strategy and became even more critical to the work of his heir at the IAF, Ed Chambers. Alinsky and his disciples wanted to help ordinary citizens create powerful local organizations that could demand change from politicians and corporate executives. They focused on developing relationships among community leaders, such as pastors or lay leaders of congregations, who could mobilize other people through their institutional connections.
Gregory Galluzzo, a Gamaliel founder, was one of Obama’s teachers. “I tell people I’m a mentor,” Galluzzo says, “but an organizer is like a musician. A musician has to play music. Somebody listens and points a few things out. But nobody teaches a jazz musician jazz. This man was gifted. An older musician would know if a young musician was practicing, and Barack was always practicing.”
Practicing involved one-on-one meetings with potential leaders-listening to them and developing relationships, then getting those leaders to mobilize other people for “actions.” Alinsky often favored flamboyant, theatrical confrontations, but the typical action for contemporary faith-based community groups like Gamaliel is a large meeting where community leaders present their case for change, then demand a commitment of concrete support from some official.
According to other organizers and community leaders who worked with him, Obama insisted on democratic process and resisted exaggeration of successes. And he followed the organizers’ credo: Be accountable to others and demand accountability from leaders in return. He pushed the local leaders into the limelight, they say, keeping himself in the background.
Loretta Augustine-Herron, a part-time teacher who was a DCP leader, recalled one such occasion, a meeting with a city employment and training official. Augustine-Herron was supposed to be the group leader for the meeting. “This lady came in and was very aggressive and domineering,” she says. “I was supposed to introduce the issue, and she tried to take over. She said, ‘You don’t even know what we do.’ From the back of the room, Barack shouted, ‘We want to hear about the issue. We want to hear what Loretta has to say.’ Then the whole group picked up the chant, and she backed down.”
While he often stayed in the background, Obama was anything but passive, according to his former fellow organizers. Galluzzo recalls Obama’s efforts to organize residents of Altgeld Gardens, a Far South Side public-housing development, to demand removal of asbestos from their apartments. The night before a trip to meet with Chicago Housing Authority officials a big crowd turned out, but the next morning few people showed up for the trek to the CHA office. So Obama began dragging people out of the projects into the van.
“People the night before promised to take a stand,” Galluzzo says. “But the people in public housing, they didn’t show up after they said they would. The organization’s reputation was on the line. Barack was on the line. And Barack filled that van. We had our action. An organizer is one who says, ‘Damn it, I’ll make it happen.’ People don’t just rise up.”
Obama was also empathetic, even with his antagonists. In his autobiography, Dreams from My Father, he recounts that during the Altgeld asbestos campaign, he felt anguish for an official who was on the verge of attempting a cover-up that would backfire on him.
Fellow-organizer Mike Kruglik recalls Obama’s approach with panhandlers. “Instead of giving 50 cents and walking down the street, he’d engage a person and invest some emotion in that person,” Kruglik says. “I remember him saying, ‘That could easily be me. There’s not that much that separates that kind of person from me.’ There was some relationship between his capacity to empathize and his determination to do the job, the possibility starting to gel in his mind that he could create this organization of African-Americans that would be very powerful.”
Obama’s attempt to create a community organization was also part of a personal quest for a community of identity and a political community. As he recounts in his autobiography, he struggled as a young man with questions of who he was and where he fit in to American society.
“Some things in Dreams from My Father where he talks about community foreshadow the politics he seems to be trying to build now in this campaign,” Kruglik says. “We say communities are groups of folks whose destinies are bound together and feel that. Barack was trying to enter into such a community, to create a political community of people who feel their destinies are bound together and decide collectively to shape that future.”
It wasn’t always easy. Obama tried to reach out to black Protestant churches, but they were suspicious of the Catholic churches that were CCRC’s original base and financial support. Some black leaders were uncomfortable with the white organizers, which is one reason Obama was hired. There were social tensions within the black community between housing-project residents and their middle-income neighbors. Moreover, many residents were skeptical about the value of community organizing. Traditionalists clung to the old Democratic machine habits of patronage and inside connections. And at the time Obama joined CCRC, most black Chicagoans were looking to Mayor Harold Washington, the city’s dynamic, progressive black mayor, to empower them.
The Rev. Alvin Love, now DCP’s president, was just starting his ministry and wondering how to get his parishioners more involved in the neighborhood when young Barack Obama knocked on his door. Love agreed to Obama’s request that he attend a meeting with other clergy, Protestant and Catholic, to lay out their concerns and seek common ground.
“At the time most of the ministers were white, the Developing Communities Project mostly Catholic,” Love says. “Barack said we have to get all stakeholders involved, so he came to the Protestant churches, mostly with African-American pastors. Race? It really wasn’t a problem once we put our issues on the table and we saw we were all dealing with the same things. The issues were the same for all of us. I think that probably was the greatest accomplishment. We won some things, but the lasting importance is that he brought us together in a culturally divided community.”
Obama succeeded, says veteran organizer Kellman, because “he identified a larger range of leaders and built a network…. They trusted him because he was a good listener, and you build relationships when you’re a good listener.”
After Obama had been on the job for about a year, Gamaliel’s leaders wanted him to move his organizing work to Gary, Ind., where they saw better prospects. “His take on that was that we had to stay there [on Chicago’s South Side],” recalls Kellman. “My take was that it wasn’t going to happen. We wouldn’t be able to accomplish all that much. It wasn’t the most difficult time, but it was difficult. We never intended to have only a black organization.”
But DCP leaders wanted an organization that was identifiably African-American. Obama felt loyalty to the people in the Chicago neighborhoods where he had been working at a time when he was also consolidating his own identity as African-American.
“This was the first time that Barack had lived in a major African-American community, except at Columbia,” Kellman says. “It wasn’t just that he identified with the black community, but he found a home. He was rootless. He put down roots. He could not have done his political career without that. He became comfortable with who he was, not that he became comfortable ‘being black,’ but with the complexities of it all.”
Obama stayed on with DCP for two more years, winning small improvements in job training, education and the environment. While an article in the Los Angeles Times portrayed him as exaggerating his importance as an organizer, Obama is very frank about his limited organizing successes in his autobiography.
After he left DCP for Harvard Law School, Obama retained ties to the community. “He was the first black head of the Harvard Law Review, but he came back and did training for us, and if we had a big action, he was there,” Augustine-Herron says. “Even when he graduated, he still worked with the organization. That’s commitment most people don’t have. When they’re climbing the ladder, they don’t look back. He looked back.”
But Obama was also looking forward. He often chafed at the inability of community organizing to tackle the big issues of power and injustice. “Ah, yes. Real change. It had seemed like such an attainable goal back in college…,” he wrote. “Only now, after a year of organizing, nothing seemed simple. Who was responsible for a place like Altgeld? I found myself asking. There were no cigar-chomping crackers like Bull Connor out there, no club-wielding Pinkerton thugs.” A small neighborhood group, he concluded, cannot easily confront the people with the greatest control over their lives.
Kruglik says Obama went to law school largely because “he wanted to understand how power operates at a more powerful level, how money is moved and invested, how major financial decisions are made, and how that affects what happens to people in communities.” Yet Obama talked about returning to Chicago to form a much larger, faith-based network of community organizations. The Alinsky model of institution-based organizing continued to appeal to him more than alternatives, such as the direct organizing of poor people by groups like ACORN (Association of Communities Organized for Reform Now), which often is involved in electoral politics.
But when he returned to Chicago after getting his law degree, Obama began pulling together different threads of his experience to create an alternative model for action. He led a successful voter-registration campaign. He considered running for mayor. Then in 1996 he ran for state Senate, playing political hardball to get the nomination yet running a grassroots campaign to win.
As De Zutter wrote about Obama at that time, “He doesn’t just want to create and support progressive programs; he wants to mobilize the people to create their own. He wants to stand politics on its head, empowering citizens by bringing together the churches and businesses and banks, scornful grandmothers and angry young. Mostly he’s running to fill a political and moral vacuum,” left by orators who stir up fervor in the black community, then offer no program for change.
As a state senator, Obama worked closely with broad multi-ethnic coalitions and downstate rural, white legislators. He moved smoothly from South Side basketball courts to the classes he taught at the University of Chicago law school or the wealthy downtown foundations he advised. Kruglik recalls how excited Obama was at a big suburban job-training rally that brought together a disparate crowd of more than 2,000 people-blacks, Latinos and blue-collar whites.
Obama believed that “even if the black community organized itself, it wouldn’t be able to win economic solutions just within its own community,” according to Kruglik. “He had a more complex politics than being torn between the two [black community organizing and a broad coalition]. I was impressed with how determined he was that the South Side piece be so authentic, that black leaders run it. He said something like, ‘I’m from the black community but not limited by it.’ “
And as much as Obama decided that he could do more as a legislator, he continued to embrace community organizing. In the Alinsky tradition, community groups typically don’t get involved in electoral politics, and most traditional politicians do not want citizen groups that hold them accountable or do more than turn out votes (and money) for their re-election. Obama rejected that dichotomy, not only encouraging and meeting with community groups but working closely with them to win legislation.
He collaborated with United Power for Action and Justice (UPAJ), a metropolitan Chicago faith-based organization formed in 1997 by the IAF, to expand children’s health insurance in Illinois. For its part, UPAJ gave Obama a prominent platform to address its multiracial, metropolitan membership during his 2004 bid for the U.S. Senate. William McNary, co-director of Citizen Action/Illinois, a coalition of labor, community and citizen groups, says, “Barack was not just willing to meet with community-based groups, not only to be a good vote for us, but he also strategized with us to help move our position forward.”
Obama is not the first prominent progressive politician to come from the ranks of organizers and to maintain a close relationship with citizen groups. The late Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, even more energetically than Obama, encouraged citizen and community organizing while he was in office. (Obama both praised Wellstone as “magnificent” and dismissed him as a “gadfly” in an interview in The Nation.) Other former organizers-such as Rep. Jan Schakowsky from one of Chicago’s North Side and suburban congressional districts-also work with and help to build community groups. And in Chicago, Mayor Washington relied on community groups from black, white and Latino neighborhoods for his path-breaking campaign, then integrated them into his policy work in office, especially on economic development.
In recent years, many legislators have responded to pressure from unions to be more than a reliable vote and to take a stand in tough organizing campaigns. Obama did so recently on behalf of Chicago workers trying to organize at the Resurrection Hospital chain. And former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards — one of Obama’s rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination — has frequently and vigorously supported labor campaigns. In many cases, community groups like ACORN work closely with labor unions and support organizing campaigns. These relationships point to the possibility of progressive candidates developing much closer partnerships with a wide range of grass-roots organizing groups for their mutual benefit.
Nevertheless, tensions between groups doing grass-roots organizing and politicians may be inevitable. Even the Gamaliel Foundation’s Galluzzo complains that Obama hasn’t been as forceful an advocate for comprehensive immigration reform as the group would like. But such tensions can be productive. Community groups can hold politicians accountable, but they can also give politicians leverage in negotiations when they can point to masses of people demanding action. Ultimately, even as they work together, community groups and sympathetic politicians must recognize the autonomy of their partners.
Both community organizing and progressive electoral politics could be much more effective if both strategies were more deeply intertwined than they are now. Community groups need to support progressive candidates more forcefully in election campaigns, even as they retain the freedom to criticize candidates they’ve supported. Progressive politicians need to recognize that they are more likely to win election and be able to mobilize public support for their legislation if they foster organizing of citizen groups, even if that means those same groups will often demand more than the politician deems practical.
As a young man, Obama learned the limitations of community organizing, but he never lost sight of the power of mobilized citizens. He’s brought that vision to his run for president, seeking to inspire a grass-roots movement that will put him in the White House. At the same time, it will be interesting to see if he also remembers how, as an organizer, he warned community residents not to put their faith in one person to solve their problems and urged them to press their demands forcefully on officials who try to evade an issue.
Even Obama’s admirers worry that membership in the Washington power elite and the pressures of a presidential campaign will divert him from his ideal of the politician as organizer of citizen empowerment. But if rhetoric is a measure of intentions, they have reason for optimism. In a recent fundraising letter referring to his organizing days and urging supporters to host a “Community Kickoff” event to build a movement for “hope, action, change,” Obama wrote, “Together we have an incredible opportunity to bring politics back to our neighborhoods and communities, where people genuinely care about our common future and believe that we have the power to shape the kind of society in which we live.”