This morning, a long-time grassroots organizer dropped me a note. He wondered whether I'd be interested in doing a story about the life of a community organizer. He was offended -- rightly -- by mocking remarks at the Republican National Convention last night about community organizers (Obama's first job) by first Rudy Giuliani and then Sarah Palin.
I thought it was a good idea, particularly if Republicans continue to demean honest toil. It seems that money and personal aggrandizement are the only measures of success for some Republicans. You see it expressed frequently, not just at the convention but among Repub visitors here. They seem to have contempt for people who aren't rich and -- worse -- don't measure their happiness by their bank account. They don't seem to understand that fulfillment takes many forms, sometimes the least of them money. (Wasn't there a book once that said something about the love of money?)
Some people are fulfilled by low paying jobs that secure a better life for other people. Others find great satisfaction in working for, say, a trade union or even a free newspaper. The luxury of free speech and a platform on which to practice it? Priceless, like the credit card commercial says.
Anyway, the NY Times beat us to the punch with this story about offended community organizers in New York city, a better place thanks to people like them.
UPDATE: Even Time's Joe Klein got -- and was offended by -- the mockery of community workers. And he's not easily offended by Republicans.
UPDATE II: On the jump, a guest column from a Little Rock-based community organizer.
Community organizing's long history
By Bill Kopsky
Executive Director, Arkansas Public Policy Panel
Barack Obama worked for a short time out of law school as a community organizer, a job that I share and have made my career at the Arkansas Public Policy Panel. His experience as a community organizer was belittled during the Republican National Convention. Community organizing has been a primary tool of the American reformer from colonial times until now. To belittle it in an election about competing visions of change makes no sense.
True community organizing is non-partisan. Community organizing is about putting community decisions as close to the ground as possible – grassroots democracy with the smallest "d." It brings people together to build stronger relationships, create shared opinions and make shared plans to strengthen communities.
The most fundamental rule of community organizers is that we believe each has a responsibility to make our own lives better and we all share the responsibility to help our whole community do better. Conservatives, liberals and apolitical people all share these values.
The volunteer militias that freed the United States from the British more than 230 years ago were the product of community organizing. The Bill of Rights is a defining document for organizing, based in freedom of speech, “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Harriet Tubman was a community organizer who helped people escape from slavery. Susan B. Anthony was an organizer who helped women secure the right to vote and run for office. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a community organizer who galvanized the nation to stand up for equal rights. The Southern Tenant Farmers Union, started right here in Tyronza, Arkansas, was led by community organizers who put an end to inhumane share cropping and birthed the farm worker movement. Recent organizing in Little Rock resulted in two different community groups still focused on education - one in support of our former school superintendent and one in opposition.
The Arkansas Public Policy Panel was originally founded by women volunteers who formed the Women's Emergency Committee to reopen schools during the Central High crisis of 1957. Today we have community organizers working with leaders who are Democrats, Republicans, independents and Greens – and together they are improving communities across our state.
We are proudly non-partisan. We worked with Republican Governor Huckabee to create a State Department of Agriculture, implement statewide preschool programs, raise the state minimum wage, extend voting hours and yes raise taxes to fund medicaid programs for the elderly and fund education for our children. We worked with Democratic Governor Beebe and Democratic legislators to create a Governor's Commission On Global Warming, provide low-income tax relief, improve energy policy, protect victims of domestic violence, open community centers, improve schools, protect individual property rights and protect our drinking water.
Arkansas has a strong tradition of organizing that has impacted the nation. Being a community organizer is no more a qualification for president than being a mayor, a farmer, a governor or a U.S. Senator. But the experiences of an organizer should not be discounted either – there is value in knowing how to bring people together and solve problems. Candidates should be evaluated by what they will do on the issues confronting our nation. Our hopes and challenges are not Democrat or Republican, they are American.
COMMUNITY ORGANIZING NETWORKS SPEAK OUT ABOUT “ACTUAL RESPONSIBILITIES”
(September 4, 2008) – Faith-based community organizing leaders are speaking out today about the “actual responsibilities” of community organizers and their tremendous impact every day on the lives of millions of Americans.
Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s remark last night -- that her experience as “a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities” -- reflects the fact that many of our political leaders have no idea what community organizing is or how it impacts the lives working people in communities across America every day.
Community organizers are equipping tens of thousands of clergy and lay leaders in thousands of congregations across America to take effective action to improve the lives of millions of Americans. PICO, Gamaliel, DART, and Interfaith Worker Justice are four of the congregation-based community organizing networks dedicated to this work. Contact leaders from each to learn more:
“As a life-long Republican, the comments I heard last night about community organizing crossed the line. It is one thing to question someone’s experience, another to demean the work of millions of hard working Americans who take time to get involved in their communities. 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.
PICO is comprised of 53 faith-based organizations and 1,000 faith communities from 50 denominations working in 150 cities and town and 17 states. Bishop Dixon may be reached by cell at 619- 921-0738. Alternative contact: 734-255-4029.
"We can thank community organizing for the weekend, the 8 hour day, integrated swimming pools, public transportation, health care for children and safe neighborhoods. Community organizing is behind most of the family-oriented initiatives we benefit from every day. I am proud to work for change in my country, my state, and my city as a community organizer, following the great traditions of Dr. Martin Luther King,"said Laura Barrett, National Policy Director of Gamaliel/Transportation Equity Network (TEN).
Gamaliel is a multifaith community organizing network in 60 metro regions in the US, as well as Great Britian and South Africa. 2,000 faith congregations, student groups and unions are involved in Gamaliel. Laura Barrett can be reach by cell at 314-443-5915.
“Contrary to Palin’s disparaging remarks, organizers have major responsibilities for creating policy changes. Feeding the hungry and housing the homeless are clearly responsibilities of people of faith. We do that by providing food and shelter and more importantly, by organizing to address the causes of injustice and inequity which lead to hunger and homelessness,”said Kim Bobo, Executive Director of Interfaith Worker Justice and the co-author of “Organizing for Social Change.”
Interfaith Worker Justice includes 60 affiliates and 20 workers centers and organizes people of faith to improve wages, benefits, and working conditions for workers, especially low-wage workers. Kim Bobo can be reached by cell at 773-391-8844.
“Politicians should thank community organizers, not insult them. As a longtime organizer, I’ve seen time and time again the we are the ones who make government work for the poor, the powerless and the marginalized. Politicians’ policies and promises would amount to nothing without grassroots activists to hold them accountable. We are leaders of faith and stewards of democracy. In a time when the face of faith in politics is often ugly, community organizing is a valuable example faith’s positive role in public life,” said Pastor Mark Diemer, senior pastor of Grace of God Lutheran Church in Columbus, Ohio and a DART community organizer.
DART has built and strengthened over twenty local affiliated organizations in six states and trained over 10,000 community leaders and 150 professional community organizers. Pastor Diemer may be reached by cell at 614-425-0284.