Saturday, September 06, 2008

What is a Community Organizer, Anyhow?

... besides a Republican punchline. At the Republican National Convention, some of the speakers ridiculed Barack Obama's experience as a community organizer. Never mind the fact that the RNC was themed on "service" and Republicans of the past promoted social programs involving "a thousand points of light," I don't think these people have any idea what it means to be a community organizer. Or do they?

First of all, here in Virginia, we can lay claim to an authoritative source on the subject or community organizing. A book was recently published called "We Make Change: Community Organizers Talk About What They Do--and Why" by Joe Szakos and his wife Kristin of Charlottesville.* Pretty convenient, huh? That should answer a lot of questions, and it probably won't surprise you to know that We Make Change is the first book of its kind on the topic of community organizing (although there is a handbook/bible for practitioners). Joe Szakos is the Executive Director of the Virginia Organizing Project (VOP).** This statewide organization "empowers people in local communities to address issues that affect the quality of their lives." That's basically the core idea behind community organizing.

Does this work sound like something that should be ridiculed? The answer is YES, if you are an advocate of the filthy rich or an elected official who lives in fear of being held accountable. From that point of view, community organizing is threatening as it brings people into the political process and gives them a voice and a taste of power. The organized go from political subjects, to actors.

Another reason why Republicans are trying to laugh away Obama's background? He was damned good at his job! Barack Obama turned a congregation based group from a $70k annual budget to a $400k a year group that mobilized thousands through job training and defended against victimization by slum-lords. And now, he's coming for McCain's multi-house owning ass with an army of underprivileged Americans who are fed up. Um, yeah. That might inspire nervous laughter and defensiveness.

But seriously, Virginia may have VOP, but we aren't well known for community organizing otherwise. The standout national group, ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), is renowned for turning recent college grads into high producing, iron fisted, straight talking, progressive political pitbulls. But they haven't found a foothold in Virginia. They pay a pittance for 80hrs per week of door knocking and rack up scads of political victories (like Living Wage ordinances) virtually everywhere they take root.

It's a pretty small percentage of ACORN organizers who actually stick with it and stay with the organization. Their system is about as demanding and cutthroat as Dean Witter in The Pursuit of Happiness. All of this pays off in an expanding grassroots power base that can rival corporate interests in the political process and leverage votes come election time. In other words, national politicians might talk smack about community organizers, but local politicians are usually a bit more careful, if they know what's good for them.

In Richmond, community organizing goes on sporadically beneath the surface of our everyday politics. And once in a while, there is a flare up and the art reveals itself. In 2006, RISC (Richmonders Involved to Strengthen Communities) pressured city council to commit to passing a Living Wage ordinance for the 500+ contracted city employees that are currently paid a wage below the federal poverty line (just ask the guys on the City garbage truck how much they make). RISC picked up the fight after the Richmond Coalition for a Living Wage (RCLW) all but gave up their fight to see this change through (which started in the year 2000 and over the years we had supposed champions in McQuinn, Trammel, Jewell, McCollum, Pantele, Jackson, Connor...).***

After years of misleadership by Richmond city council members, RISC put several local politicians' feet to the fire in dramatic fashion, before a backdrop of gospel singing and thunderous clapping. It would have been a conversion moment had our officials felt any sincere loyalty to the public welfare, much less their own word. As soon as RISC's gifted thirty-three year old community organizer, Michael de Beer, suffered an untimely heart attack, the council used his death as a way out of their commitment to uplift the poor who toil on the city payroll.

This local story of community organizing may not inspire hope, but then again, this is Richmond, Virginia. The community is rarely organized and the fight-back spirit is largely missing from the equation of our democratic process, unless you count Ukrops and the RTD's influence over city government. But, enough sour grapes outta me. Community organizing is only going to grow stronger as our leaders sneer and snicker. If you want to get involved in changing the disproportionate distribution of power, get that book, contact VOP, or look at some of the projects you're already involved in and realize that you might be already be a community organizer.

*This book is seriously awesome. If you want to borrow my copy, just say the word.
**I serve on the Statewide Governing Board of VOP.
***I was a founding member of RCLW.


  1. from some old SDSers

    Jesus Christ was a Community Organizer .... Pontius Pilate was a Governor

  2. Tesha9:46 AM

    Fyi - It's BaraCk Obama

  3. Oh crap. I thought everyone else was spelling it wrong, not me. Thanks. I'll fix it.


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