Barack Obama, community organiser

ObamaI was asked to speak on “Obama as a role model for young people”. To do this I think we need to understand what shaped Barack Obama. He didn’t come from nowhere. Like all of us he comes from somewhere and he was shaped by many things: his African American heritage and history, family, upbringing, education, environment and political circumstances. I’m going to focus on one particular aspect: Barack Obama as a community organiser.

In 1985 as a 24 year old graduate, Barack Obama decided to become a community organizer in Chicago’s South Side for the Developing Communities Project (DCP) a church based community group based in a diverse white, black and Latino working class neighborhood that was reeling from steel-mill closures. He earned $13,000 a year, plus $2,000 for a car; an old Honda Civic, which he drove for the next three years organizing more than twenty congregations to change their neighborhoods.

Obama worked in the organizing tradition of Saul Alinsky who made Chicago the birthplace of modern community organizing by helping citizens to confront officials or people in power with clear demands rather than using personal connections. This tradition goes back further in Chicago. In the 1880’s Jane Addams set up Hull House as a “settlement house” where she and others worked on education and community improvement projects and campaigns with some of the poorest new arrivals in the city, thus “inventing” modern social work. Addams herself was inspired by the work she saw at Toynbee Hall, a settlement house in Whitechapel, East London and still going strong today.

The DCP protected community interests and helped win employment training, playgrounds, after-school programs, school reforms, asbestos removal from homes and other public amenities. “There was no campaign without Barack,” says a former colleague “He was there to get people to organize when they wouldn’t organize at all.” Despite some victories, this work did not completely transform the South Side or restore all the lost industrial jobs but it did change the young man who went on to be elected senator for Illinois in 2004. “I can’t say we didn’t make mistakes” Obama recalls “Sometimes I called a meeting, and nobody showed up. Sometimes people said, ‘Why should I listen to you?’ but I grew up to be a man, right here, in this area. It’s by working with this organization and this community that I found my calling. There was something more than making money and getting a fancy degree. The measure of my life would be public service.”

After a transient youth Obama had found a home, a political identity and a community with which he connected to. He honed his talent for listening, learned strategy, practiced bringing different people together and developed a faith in citizens that has influenced his campaign messages.

People who worked with Obama during that time describe him in glowing terms: dedicated, hard-working, dependable, intelligent, inspiring, a good listener, confident but self-effacing. They expressed admiration for the way he trained strong community leaders while keeping himself in the background and the way he could turn general problems into specific, winnable issues. “Be open with the issues. Include the community instead of going behind the community’s back sometime you need to include people you don’t like. You’ve got to bring people together. If you exclude people, you’re only weakening yourself. If you meet behind closed doors and make decisions for them, they’ll never take ownership of the issue.”

But Obama grew restless and eventually went to Harvard Law School. A friend recalls: “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.” Obama kept his ties to DCP and worked out of its office when he ran a drive that registered 150,000 new voters in 1992 and became the springboard for his own grassroots campaign for the Illinois State Senate.

As a presidential candidate, Obama often referred to his community organizing, he asked supporters to treat his campaign as a social movement in which the candidate is just “an imperfect vessel of your hopes and dreams.” A former colleague from the DCP says, “Everything he does reflects that community organizing experience. I see the consensus-building, his connection to people and listening to their needs and trying to find common ground. I think at his heart Barack is a community organizer. I think that’s what he’s doing now. It’s just a larger community to be organized.”

As US president, Barack Obama has faced major global challenges which he can’t solve through direct action on his own or through single issue campaigning. These issues have tested him but his politics of unity which appealed to many voters has its roots in his work as a bridge builder. President Obama still shows these roots: a faith in ordinary citizens, a quest for common ground and a preference for defining issues in winnable ways.

The tradition of peaceful direct action can be traced via Martin Luther King, who influenced Obama, through to Mahatma Gandhi who was a big influence on King.

Community organising doesn’t just happen in Chicago or in the US. It’s also right here on our doorstep in London. It’s part of the volunteer tradition in Newham and the work of London Citizens in East London, including the London Citizens’ campaign for a London living wage.

So, Barack Obama is a role model for young people for many reasons. One of those is his commitment to listening to people, working with people, trusting people and developing other people’s leadership – all of which came from his background in community organising.

What could we achieve as a community here at NewVIc if we applied some of those same principles?  Several hundred NewVIc students already do voluntary work on a regular basis in the college and in the Newham area. But there are around 3,000 of us, counting students and staff. Imagine what we could do for our community if we all became community organisers, even for just one hour a week. That might be a fitting way to live up to the role model Barack Obama offers us.

Presentation for “Obama Day” at Newham sixth form college (NewVIc) in 2008/09

Some background information drawn from “The Nation” magazine, 2008.

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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