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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What is Community Organizing?



Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani both mocked Barack Obama's career as a community organizer. Palin made the most blatant mockery of the profession by comparing her experience as mayor to his as an organizer by saying "a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities."

As I've thought about the comments they have made me a little upset, in some ways my job and experience is tied very closely to that of an organizer. As to be expected the community of organizers are very upset, no doubt organizing against McCain & Palin!

The joke played well to the party faithful, but in my opinion, mockery may be the best form of flattery, but its not a good way to get votes. Okay, so maybe we shouldn't make fun of her experience as a mayor of a small town.

Christianity Today
wrote that
Obama was incensed by the mockery, asking, "Why would that kind of work be ridiculous? Who are they (Republicans) fighting for... They think that the lives of those folks who are struggling each and every day, that working with them to try to improve their lives is somehow not relevant to the presidency?"
I'm not sure how any one could say that there is no responsibilities in community organizing. Essentially organizing is the most basic form of democracy - working at the grassroots level gathering support for community change. I don't know much about Obama's work in Chicago, but in general organizing is tireless work, often calling for long hours and at times small, incremental successes.

The Wikipedia definition of community organizing may shed some light on the situation:

Community organizing is the foundation of the civil rights movement, the women's suffrage movement, labor rights, and the 40-hour workweek. Throughout our history, ordinary people have made good on America's promise by organizing for change from the bottom up. From winning living wages to expanding affordable housing to improving the quality of public schools to getting health coverage for the poor and elderly, community organizers have made and will continue to make our communities and our country better for all of us.
It is my understanding that the Republican Party doesn't really like these issues. I am a moderate who tends to lean conservative on many issues, but these are issues that are important to really discuss and actually act on during the 4 years between presidential campaigns.

Less Controversial - A Christian Perspective


Surprisingly Christianity Today quietly chastised Giuliani and Palin for their remarks.

for a party still trying to shake off the stereotype that Republicans are out of touch concerning the plight of the poor and care only for the rich. Certainly pro-lifers and others who help the poor do their own brands of community organizing in dysfunctional pockets of society. Whether community organizing is the best way to help the poor is one thing, but to dismiss out of hand the work of someone willing at least to try to help is another entirely.
Jim Wallis of Sojourners was offended by these comments, but more importantly he provided comments from a variety of faith-based community organizers, some of which are or were Republicans.
When people come together in my church hall to improve our community, they're building the Kingdom of God in San Diego. We see the fruits of community organizing in safer streets, new parks, and new affordable housing. It's the spirit of democracy for people to have a say and we need more of it," said Bishop Roy Dixon, prelate of the Southern California 4th ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Church of God in Christ, member of the San Diego Organizing Project and former board chair of PICO National Network.
I should also note this paragraph about what community organizers have been doing since Hurricane Katrina to help prepare for Hurricane Gustav. So community organizers were doing a ton of work to help evacuate and prepare people for a potential disaster:
"Perk," as we used to call him, reported on the enormous consequences of 2 million people being evacuated because of Hurricane Gustav, much of the state now being without power, how hard cities like Baton Rouge were hit, the tens of thousands of people in shelters and churches, and the continuing problems caused by heavy rains and flooding. Then he talked about how their community organizers were responding to all of this -- responding to hundreds of service calls, assisting local officials in evacuation plans, aiding evacuees without transportation, coordinating shelters and opening new ones, providing food, essential services, and financial aid to those in most need. Since Katrina, Perry's Louisiana interfaith organizations have played a lead role in securing millions of dollars to help thousands of families return to New Orleans and rebuild their homes and their lives.
Another blogger from Sojourners, Rev. Dr. Soong-Chan Rah had this to say:
Community organizing attempts to give voice to the voiceless in our society (not just the powerful and the elite) and attempts to build influence based on relationships, rather than positions. Community organizing provides a prophetic voice because it arises from outside the system of power from the local community. Those feel to me like very biblical values.
Sojourners has published some great articles in the past about faith-based community organizing - Organizing Hope and Saul Alinsky goes to Church.

Elana Wolowitz responded at the Wellstone Action Blog with a post entitled: Responsibilities of an Organizer. She had this to say:
Being an organizer means putting the needs of the community above yourself and your ego. Your task is to influence the powerful with little more than the common will, and do so while developing the leadership of those around you. A good organizer is always working to put themselves out of a job, because many others should be prepared to step up and take their place. You listen and learn, coordinate and plan, arrive early and stay late, and do the real work that improves people's lives.
I guess this means putting people first - not country first.

A local paper, Minn Post interviewed several organizers around the Twin Cities including

Elana Wolowitz, communications director for Wellstone Action!, is quick to point out that the nonprofit organization she works for is bipartisan. She's just as quick to note that Palin's "remarks were insulting and inappropriate to a field of work that is made up of people who are really sacrificing of themselves to give back to the community."
Chuck Repke, longtime executive director of the District 2 Community Council in St. Paul, said "Clearly [Palin] doesn't have much understanding of what community organizers do in a larger city."

The District 2 Community Council facilitates communication between 10 neighborhoods in northeast St. Paul. It also offers English classes, carries out recycling efforts and crime prevention measures, and holds school supply drives, among other programs.

"The big thing of a community organizer is empowering the citizens to be able to take control of their communities, to give a voice to people who normally are voiceless, to empower those people who tend not to have much power and to facilitate the development of leadership in the community. It's about making other people have power, not power for yourself," Repke explained.
Yes the Democrats need to be thick skinned and should expect some harsh words and criticism about their lives. But in their remarks, Giuliani and Palin attacked a profession, not a person. I would venture to say that Republicans don't really like Community Organizers too much because they are the opposite of big business and oil. Organizers are often organizing against "the establishment", it is the nature of the beast.

Two late posts about organizing from The Moderate Voice and Daily Kos (don't think about them as a liberal blog, take a second and look at their photo diary of organizing).

What do you think?


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