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. It 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 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 sharecropping 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 founded by women who were among those who helped form 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 Gov. Mike Huckabee to create a state Department of Agriculture, implement preschool programs, raise the minimum wage, extend voting hours and raise taxes to fund Medicaid programs for the elderly and education for our children. We worked with Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe and Democratic legislators to create a 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.
Bill Kopsky is executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.