July 7, 2008

What do we know about Barack Obama, the "community organizer"?

I'd really like to understand more about what Barack Obama did under the heading "community organizer," so I jumped to read the front-page NYT article by Serge Kovaleski, "In Organizing, Obama Led While Finding His Place."
The year was 1985 and Gerald Kellman, a community organizer, was interviewing an applicant named Barack Obama to work in the demoralized landscape of poor neighborhoods on this city’s South Side...

It is clear that the benefit of those years to Mr. Obama dwarfs what he accomplished. Mr. Kellman said that Mr. Obama had built the organization’s following among needy residents and black ministers, but “on issues, we made very little progress, nothing that would change poverty on the South Side of Chicago.”
The article calls attention to a deficiency in Obama's memoir:
Mr. Obama recounted that he helped arrange a bus trip to the housing authority headquarters where residents [of the Altgeld Gardens housing project] had demanded a meeting with the executive director and a pledge that residential units would be tested for asbestos. As television cameras rolled, the residents were promised testing and a meeting.

“I changed as a result of that bus trip, in a fundamental way,” Mr. Obama wrote. It was the kind of action that “hints at what might be possible and therefore spurs you on.”

What Mr. Obama does not mention in his book is that residents of the nearby Ida B. Wells housing project, and some at Altgeld itself, had already been challenging the housing authority on asbestos. A local newspaper had also taken up the issue....

Hazel Johnson, an environmental activist at Altgeld, said that she started to raise the asbestos issue with the housing authority in 1979, but that it had failed to act. Ms. Johnson and [Linda] Randle pointed out that only some of the asbestos was removed from pipes at Altgeld, but not until 1989, a year after Mr. Obama left for Harvard. (An Obama campaign spokesman, Ben LaBolt, said, “The book is meant to be an autobiography about Obama’s experiences, not a history of social and environmental activism in Chicago.”)

Meanwhile, the residents’ meeting with the housing authority’s executive director was a debacle, an illustration of the setbacks faced by Mr. Obama and other organizers.
You can read the description of the debacle in the article.
Mr. Obama had risen to executive director of the Developing Communities group, but the demanding hours, small victories and low pay took a toll on him, and he decided to leave.

“ ‘We are not making large-scale change, and I want to be involved in doing that,’ ” Mr. Kellman said Mr. Obama had told him....

Mr. Obama had mused to friends in Chicago about one day working for unions or becoming a preacher, a journalist or even a fiction writer. While there, he wrote short stories based on people he had encountered. “The stories were beautifully crafted and evocative,” said Mr. Kruglik.
A preacher, a journalist, or a fiction writer? All of those things — along with politics — have to do with crafted and evocative language. It sounds as though Obama learned what he core skill was and — I'm guessing now — realized he operated better at some distance from the raucous, demanding people.

I'd love to see the transcript of Kovaleski's whole interview with Kellman. What details underlie the phrase "took a toll on him"?

Here's an article covering much of the same ground that ran in The Nation in April 2007:
After a transient youth and an earnest search for identity, Obama also found a home--a community with which he continued relationships, a church and a political identity. He honed his talent for listening, learned pragmatic strategy, practiced bringing varied people together and developed a faith in ordinary citizens that still influences his campaign message. He discovered the importance of personal storytelling in politics (and wrote short stories that refined his style).
Please, can we read the stories?
Often by confronting officials with insistent citizens--rather than exploiting personal connections, as traditional black Democrats proposed--Obama and DCP protected community interests regarding landfills and helped win employment training services, playgrounds, after-school programs, school reforms and other public amenities....

But Obama grew restless and eventually went to Harvard Law School. "He said you can only go so far in organizing. You help people get some solutions, but it's never as big as wiping away problems," says Michael Evans, a DCP organizer after Obama left. "It wasn't end-all. He wanted to be part of the end-all, to get things done."....

Obama's politics of transcendent unity, which has appealed to many voters, has its roots in his work as a "bridge builder," in the words of the Rev. Anthony Van Zanten, overcoming the gulf within DCP between Catholic and Protestant churches. But this vision of harmony also reflects Obama's distaste for conflict.

"Personality-wise, Barack did not like direct confrontation," Kellman says. "He was a very nice young man, very polite. It was a stretch for him to do Alinsky techniques. He was more comfortable in dialogue with people. But challenging power was not an issue for him. Lack of civility was."

Obama's organizing history may give few clues about what policies he would pursue as President, but Obama the presidential candidate still shows his roots--a faith in ordinary citizens, a quest for common ground and a pragmatic inclination toward defining issues in winnable ways.
ADDED: And here, literary critic Andrew Delbanco opines on Obama's writing style. (It was worth writing this article if only to use the great title: "Deconstructing Barry.") Quoting a passage from "Dreams From My Father," he says:
This is a young writer (he was around 30 when he wrote Dreams) strutting his stuff. Sometimes he overwrites, as when he describes police cars cruising past groups of sullen black teens in "barracuda silence" or compares a row of scrappy trees to "hair swept across a bald man's head." He has a habit--almost a tic--of throwing in a cinematic flourish when none is needed: "a spotted, mangy cat" runs among weeds with a crumbling housing project in the background; a torn poster-photo of the recently dead Chicago mayor, Harold Washington, tumbles down a windswept street.
Yes, reading the book, I was often distracted by the thought that it was "creative writing." But Delbanco likes the book, in which he detects "a theme... the fall from paradise." There is the race-blind childhood in Hawaii and the gradual detection of the role played by race.

Delbanco moves on to "The Audacity of Hope":
[T]he voice of the writer is fundamentally the same as the one we hear in Dreams. There is the same internal counterpoise in the sentences: "Most evangelicals are more tolerant than the media would have us believe, most secularists more spiritual" ... "most rich people want the poor to succeed, and most of the poor are more self-critical and hold higher aspirations than the popular culture allows." When he scans the human landscape, Obama tends to notice contradictory individuals more than coherent interest groups....

This is the writing of someone trying to map a route through a world where choices are less often between good and bad than between competing goods. Though it lacks the sensual immediacy of the earlier book, the language is open and unresolved, the sentences organized around pairs of sentiments or arguments that exert equal force against each other--a reflection of ongoing thinking rather than a statement of settled thoughts.

35 comments:

ricpic said...

Why must "poverty" (we're talking color TV poverty here) be changed?

In a just society (not the lefty brand of justice) those with the smarts and, far more important, the sticktoitofness, will rise. Those without won't. They will be poor. Rightfully so.

Barak the community organizer was organizing to do what? Deny that reality.

jfahy said...

Ann, you should also read Byron York's article on this in National Review.

Chip Ahoy said...

Alinsky. That's the second time in as many days I've seen that name evoked.

P. Rich said...

realized he operated better at some distance from the raucous, demanding people

And from the reality of his own insignificance and ineffectiveness.

This "story" is a triumph of fiction and mind reading, an opportunity created to paint Obama in glowing colors by literally inventing reasons for his actions and projecting great imaginary benefits gained from his "experience". In other words, it's a lame attempt to band-aid his obvious in-experience. Though what else could one expect? It's the NYT, and Althouse is a dutiful acolyte.

Pogo said...

"on issues, we made very little progress, nothing that would change poverty on the South Side of Chicago."

Shades of Robert Reich.

'Community organizing' has never ever improved the plight of the poor. That Obama would think it might do so speaks volumes for his credulity and lack of knowledge, despite (or because of) spending so much time in school.

And while labor oraganizing did in fact raise wages for millions, eventually, after decades of voting themselves raises, their jobs went away.

In contrast, the much-reviled capitalism (i.e. hard work and the right to keep one's profits) has been the primary -if not the only-mechansim by which true poverty has in fact vanished in any meaningful form in the USA.

Obama's Reichian misunderstanding of basic economics should scare the bejezus out of people.

But it won't.

Hope springs eternal, and man is nothing if not convinced there is a way to get something for nothing.

AJ Lynch said...

"What do we know about Barack Obama, the community organizer?"

I hear he organized great dodgeball tournaments which led to the game's revival and a Ben Stiller movie or two.

And word has it a Box Hockey flick is in development.

Bissage said...

Obama was that most dangerous of creatures, a clever community organizer.

He went to Harvard after he realized a community organizer’s life consists of standing around for a few months and then being eaten.

And that’s a depressing prospect for an ambitious sheep . . . er . . . community organizer.

Michael_H said...

"....I'm guessing now — realized he operated better at some distance from the raucous, demanding people."

Is it any wonder?

Barack Obama is a Harvard educated white guy. As much as he'd want us (and his constituent voting base) to believe otherwise, it's the plain fact.

He attends Rev. Wright's church in order to get some black cred, but he's still a white guy who could neither tolerate nor identify with the members of the community where he sought to be an activist.

He walks, talks, speaks and looks like a white guy. He's not a street brotha. Probably has Huey Lewis on his iPod.

Paul Zrimsek said...

It was the best of times. I have consistently said that it was the worst of times. -- A Tale of Two Cities by Barack Obama

Fen said...

"What do we know about Barack Obama, the community organizer?"

That he protected slumlord Rezko's fleecing of the poor:

"Their buildings were falling apart," said a former city official. "They just didn't pay attention to the condition of these buildings."

Eleven of Rezko's buildings were in Obama's state Senate district.


http://www.suntimes.com/news/metro/353829,CST-NWS-rez23.article

Fen said...

More of the same from Boston Globe via Belmont Club:

The squat brick buildings of Grove Parc Plaza, in a dense neighborhood that Barack Obama represented for eight years as a state senator, hold 504 apartments subsidized by the federal government for people who can’t afford to live anywhere else.

But it’s not safe to live here.

About 99 of the units are vacant, many rendered uninhabitable by unfixed problems, such as collapsed roofs and fire damage. Mice scamper through the halls. Battered mailboxes hang open. Sewage backs up into kitchen sinks. In 2006, federal inspectors graded the condition of the complex an 11 on a 100-point scale - a score so bad the buildings now face demolition.


"It’s not only a tale of what Tony Rezko really did for a living, but what many of Obama’s closest political and campaign associates do to this very day. It’s a story with endless variations but one basic motif. Take a good cause, like providing low cost housing; persuade government to kick in money to subsidize it and turn the whole thing into a racket.

http://pajamasmedia.com/richardfernandez/2008/07/04/community-organizer/

AllenS said...

His wife, Michelle, is also insignificant and ineffective. Her overpaid job at the hospital is/was reserved for an affirmative action hire of a minority college graduate. Were operations safer? Did the incidence of infection decline? No. An empty suit, and pantsuit.

I'll bet Hillary is still waiting for everyone to figure this out. It is still a long time for the Democratic nomination.

AJ Lynch said...

AllenS said:

"I'll bet Hillary is still waiting for everyone to figure this out. It is still a long time for the Democratic nomination."

Agree - Hillary must be drinking heavily, hoping her personal nightmare ends and asking "so how the F did I lose to a Dodgeball team manager aka community organizer?"

George said...

These things were said about Our Founding Fathers, too...

Mr. Washington had risen to executive director of the colonial group, but the demanding hours, small victories and low pay took a toll on him, and he decided to leave.

"Personality-wise, Mr. Adams did not like direct confrontation," Kellman says. "He was a very nice young man, very polite."

Patrick Henry was more comfortable in dialogue with people. But challenging power was not an issue for him. Lack of civility was."

Mr. Jefferson's is the writing of someone trying to map a route through a world where choices are less often between good and bad than between competing goods.

Mr. Hancock has a habit--almost a tic--of throwing in a cinematic flourish when none is needed...

PatCA said...

"The book is meant to be an autobiography about Obama’s experiences, not a history of social and environmental activism in Chicago.”

The book is meant to be... propaganda.

Obama accomplished nothing as a community organizer except to develop a political support group to aid his rise to power.

The Obamessiah? How can anybody believe this hooey?

Salamandyr said...

I pretty much think Jefferson looked at his choices in terms of good and bad (or evil).

Randy said...

“ ‘We are not making large-scale change, and I want to be involved in doing that,’ ” Mr. Kellman said Mr. Obama had told him....

Those who believe in large-scale change tend to have great difficulty dealing with the individuals involved, who, being individuals, tend not to act in the ways those doing the planning prefer. Thus, the tendency to address issues in terms of groups while engaging in active and passive coercion to guarantee the proper result, whatever that may be.

Kirk Parker said...

Sorry, Ann, but this guy is creepy beyond belief, and this little view-behind-the-curtain just adds to the creepiness.

Plus, I love the person some time back who pointed out, in regard to the community organizer gig: Chicago has been a Democrat stronghold since right after the glaciers receded. Why isn't their community already fully organized??

dick said...

How can it be a race-blind Hawaii when that is where he threw his white grandmother under the bus for being a racist!

michaele said...

I can't help but wonder what kind of "toll" spending 5 years as a prisoner of war and being tortured would have taken on the young Barack. After such an experience, would he continued to have dedicated himself to the service of his country? Good lord, these two men are sooo not in the same league.

Kirby Olson said...

If Steve Martin in THE JERK was culturally black, then Obama (not to say that he's a jerk!) is culturally white.

Whatever that means.

P. Rich said...

I was watching an old DVD of "Havana" last evening. There's a point in the movie where someone says (paraphrasing only slightly), "Castro is on the radio calling down from the mountains and promising change." At another point someone asks, "Who is this Castro guy anyway?" And then I thought, 'Good grief. I'm trapped in a rerun.'

Cedarford said...

I used to believe that "community organizers" were trouble-makers who identified the parasitic then demanded money from other people to give to them in order to lower their crime, maintain the peace, get their vote or 'prevent stores and businesses that can help avoid being vandalized with a simple monthly donation".

Then I saw that in practice, the community organizers like Sharpton, Jackson, the La Raza forebrand lawyers - all function more as shakedown artists and power brokers than direct funnels of money pried from others given to "the unfortunates".

Because so little ends up with the actual poor.

It gets skimmed off from the taxpayers or businesses extorted to "friends of Rev Al", or with lawyers and preachers in kicked right back to them with plausible deniabilty to function as the "legal administrator" or site and direct grant activities through the Church or Mosque..

For wannabe politicians, community organizing is a way of not just cultivating a political base in the parasitic and pitiful but being the middleman to the rich and powerful who will curry them to be "reasonable" about their "peoples demands" or suggest their organized community support things the Elites want to do. And in turn they will reward such community organizers (and relatives - much safer) with political contributions, light duty or no-show patronage jobs in government or private institutions they control.

Or, once Networked into the Elites, a discrete form of mutual backscratching works. A community organizer that creates the need for a massive asbestos removal taxpayer-funded program for "indigent homeowners" then steers it to a contractor pal they met at a lawyers club? They might get their reward a year later in access to a Senator that the contractor pays well for such access to, to cut legislation pork for another ex-Ivy activist chum, who in turn, legal disconnects in place can reward the community organizer with a 250K check for a 20-page white paper for "consulting" on diversity - which of course adds more of the community organizers most strident and important supporters to the payroll. Which completes the Feedback Loop and leaves no back unscratched.

The thing to always remember about community organizers and "activist lawyers for the poor" is that if they come from elite institutions and are intensely ambitious - the last thing they are interested in is in staying in a 20K job the next 40 years serving the poor.

(Some studies have shown that after going through many layers of people that cut out fees, claim overhead, spend on contractors and lawyers --less than 35% of Federal Grant money goes to benefit the people it was intended to help.)

former law student said...

Obama organized 700 public housing residents to meet with the CHA director and take their concerns about asbestos to him. The CHA director made them wait over an hour in the heat, then flounced off when a resident grabbed the microphone away. Other than "bureacrats are assholes, not public servants," I don't know what the moral of the story is. Oh, and Obama's organizing 700 residents to meet with the CHA director was no big deal because a resident took her concerns about asbestos to the CHA six years previously, without result.

Then I saw that in practice, the community organizers like Sharpton, Jackson, the La Raza forebrand lawyers - all function more as shakedown artists and power brokers

Those aren't the community organizers. The real community organizers are people you never heard of, because their mission is to teach the community it can empower itself, not to grab the glory and the money. The NYT points out the real community organizer was Gerald Kellman. The real organizer behind the United Farm Workers was Fred Ross. Anonymous men who organize and move on.

those with the smarts and, far more important, the sticktoitofness, will rise.

Sure, it's all pure merit, the ghetto youth has the same chance to be President as the son of the Texas oilman. Like Jim Hightower said of George Sr: He was born on third base, but thought he hit a triple.

Community organizing' has never ever improved the plight of the poor.

Sure it has. No one's going to listen to a poor man -- nobody even sees him -- but they will listen to a thousand poor men. Community organizing got the asbestos out of the public housing, got the nearby toxic waste dumps cleaned up, got the booze and cigarette ads taken off the walls that schoolkids pass every day, and got job training for the youth. On Califormia farms, community organizing got the workers portajohns to crap in and soap and water to wash up with. This helps consumers too, whose veggies are picked with clean hands.

bearbee said...

OBAMA! He is going to change us, the world! with..........the POWER OF LOOOOOVE !!!!!

ps....... 'bout 2:45 in the vid, check the guy seated high in a tire chair

Pogo said...

Community organizing got the asbestos out of the public housing
Fat lot of good that did. Lawyers take credit for much of that, anyway.

got the nearby toxic waste dumps cleaned up
Aren't you conflating 'community organzers' with 'class action lawsuits'?
Which COs accomplished toxic waste cleanup? Where?

got the booze and cigarette ads taken off the walls that schoolkids pass every day
I guess that explains the decline in high school drinking and smoking and drug use and pregnancy and crime and ....oops.

and got job training for the youth
Not jobs, mind you, but training.
To keep the jobs away from the undertrained, they raised the minimum wage and refused to allow 'big box' stores where they live. So, semi-trained young people with no jobs!

On California farms, community organizing got the workers portajohns to crap in and soap and water to wash up with.
Can't argue with that, if indeed it was 'community organizers' who achieved this.
I'd love to know which ones did this, and where.
Details!

AllenS said...

fls said...

"Community organizing' has never ever improved the plight of the poor.

Sure it has."

Prove to me, that Obama's commmunity organizing in the south side of Chicago, improved the plight of the poor. It hasn't, things are worse in the south side of Chicago. Does Obama ever go back there and promote his accomplishments? No, he doesn't. The simple fact of the matter is this, things are worse there.

I hope this idiot becomes the president. Nothing would be better for a wake up, than this: US of G*d D*amn, America.

I'll be awake, would you?

bearbee said...

Not Exactly

Beldar said...

Prof. A, if you'll entertain a direct question:

Did it strike you as odd, while reading of Barack Obama's $10k/year entry-level job as a "community organizer," that he several times referred to having had a "secretary"?

Michael_H said...

Community organizing in Chicago's south side did help end poverty.....for the B. H. Obama family, who got a sweet deal on a house.

And Mrs. Obama got a really good, high paying job as the PR flak for a Chicago hospital.

So the organizing did pay off.

Now the B. H. Obama family even has its own airplane, and s lot of paid friends so the can do, you know, national organizing.

TMink said...

Obama spent a whole 143 days at work as a senator before starting his run at the presidency. I hope he learned an awful lot about foreign diplomacy and commander in chief stuff as an organizer.

Trey

matthew said...

Obama, much like President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and John McCain, actually cares about America.

They don't have too much in common beyond that, but it's worth taking that a starting place for discussion of the issues.

Just thought I'd mention that since the unrequited hate here is starting to approach leftist blog levels. Maybe that's not entirely fair, we're quite a few death threats away from that here, but still, I'm liking Ann's cruel neutrality more and more everyday.

Zach said...

"By the time I reached high school, I was playing on Punahou's teams, and could take my game to the university courts, where a handful of black men, mostly gym rats and has-beens, would teach me an attitude that didn't just have to do with sport. That respect came from what you did and not who your daddy was. That you could talk stuff to rattle an opponent, but that you should shut the hell up if you couldn't back it up. That you didn't let anyone sneak up behind you to see emotions--like hurt or fear--you didn't want them to see.

"And something else, too, something nobody talked about: a way of being together when the game was tight and the sweat broke and the best players stopped worrying about their points and the worst players got swept up in the moment and the score only mattered because that's how you sustained the trance. In the middle of which you might make a move or a pass that surprised even you, so that even the guy guarding you had to smile, as if to say, 'Damn ...'"


Trite!

Tired observations, banal poetry. It's kind of a boring theme -- "I liked to play basketball at the local gym" -- and he doesn't bring anything new to it. A sargasso sea of the passive voice.

Actually, I'll take that back -- I like the last sentence: "you might make a move or a pass that surprised even you, so that even the guy guarding you had to smile, as if to say, 'Damn ...'" You wish he would spend more time writing about his own experiences and thoughts, less time on the slow description of every pickup basketball game ever.

Obama's big problem as a writer and a speaker is that he's so darn tedious. He needs to cut the words in half and up the content by a good 50%.

matthew said...

Obama's big problem as a writer and a speaker is that he's so darn tedious. He needs to cut the words in half and up the content by a good 50%.

I'll agree with you to some extent. I mean, it's no Bill Clinton's my life so far in terms of excess words though.

My main problem is that in the speeches I've seen, and especially in his SNL skit, Obama doesn't seem to me to have much, if any, of a sense of humor. That's just a little off-putting to me. Compared to McCain at least, his comic timing is all out of whack.

Fen said...

mathew: Just thought I'd mention that since the unrequited hate here is starting to approach leftist blog levels.

Care to provide a few examples? Or does mere criticism of Obama's housing scam qualify as "unrequited hate"?