Monday, September 08, 2008

What's So Funny About Community Organizing?

Six minutes into his speech to the Republican convention, Rudolph Giuliani said the following about Barack Obama:

“He worked as a ‘community organizer.’ What?”

Then he shrugged and laughed. The camera cut to the audience, also laughing. Giuliani tried to continue, but the chanting of “Zero! Zero! Zero!” drowned him out. The former mayor of New York City, “America’s Mayor,” the hero of September 11th, was barely able to fire off his next comment: “This is the first problem on the resume . . .”

Since when is service to one’s community a “problem”? Since when is it something to be laughed at and mocked? Isn’t the presidency of the United States basically service to one’s community? Don’t Republicans engage in grass-roots community organizing? Isn’t that how they propelled George Bush back into the White House in 2004 — the same George Bush who has let them down so badly that they are now, finally, demanding change?

But there’s a bigger issue at hand: if the Democrats don’t strenuously address that moment, they don’t deserve the privilege of running this country. Yes, Senator Obama responded in a measured, dignified manner. Yes, political action groups used it in their mailings. But it’s not enough. This revelation — completely antithetical to the Christianity that Republicans so vociferously promote — should be broadcast and re-broadcast until the truth of it is securely planted in voters’ minds: that any group of people who would publicly mock the grass-roots community work that they themselves engage in cannot be trusted with picking the next president.

What Republican voters may not realize is that Senator Obama worked for three years on the South Side of Chicago as director of the Developing Communities Project, a church-based community organization. How is that different — in practice — from the faith-based community organizations that moved George Bush back into the White House in 2004? Republican voters also may not realize that Obama directed Project Vote from April to October 1992, a voter registration drive that registered 150,000 African-Americans in Illinois. How does that differ — in practice — from the mass voter-registration drives that occurred in Ohio from 2004 to 2006, sponsored and underwritten by the state’s Christian mega-churches, meant to propel Ken Blackwell, Ohio’s Republican secretary of state, to the governorship (a race he ultimately lost)? Rod Parsley, pastor of World Harvest Church, and Russell Johnson, pastor of the Fairfield Christian Church, formed Reformation Ohio and Ohio Restoration Project to win the state for President Bush in ‘04, propelling him back into the White House for his disastrous second term. And they laughed at community organizing??

I grew up on the blue-collar South Side of Chicago, in an area called Back of the Yards, named for its proximity to the Union Stockyards. My neighborhood was the home of the nation’s first — and still functioning — community council, the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council. Founded in 1939 by Saul Alinsky, the father of community organizing, and Joe Meegan, manager of the Chicago Park District's Davis Square Park, the council’s motto is “We the people will work out our own destiny.” According to Robert Slayton’s 1986 book, Back of the Yards: The Making of a Local Democracy, “As the established representative of the community, the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council began working for control, stability, and freedom, articulating goals and realizing them. To do this, the Council not only placed pressure on powerful groups outside the neighborhood, but also dealt with powerful local institutions. During its founding years, the BYNC confronted both the meat-packers and the political system, and emerged victorious. Its power was based on the neighborhood’s new sense of unity and on its leaders’ skills . . . Back of the Yards, though its formal representative, practice[d] participatory democracy in an efficient and meaningful way, using its residents’ energies and skills to create a better community for all.”

For my neighborhood, change came from within. And for Republican voters, change needs to come from within as well: with self-reflection, self-education and the embrace of true compassion, which they are fully capable of doing — as evinced by their community service groups. And this is where the Democrats really need to step up. NOW. Republican, swing and undecided voters need to be shown that truly ugly display of mocking laughter in the hope that they might somehow look within and embrace true change. Those voters need to be shown that moment to prove once and for all that any people who would publicly mock the same community organizing that they themselves engage lack the self-education and self-reflection to pick the next president. And if the Democrats don’t show it to them — and to everyone — they don’t deserve the privilege of running this country.

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