On community organizers and prisoners of war

A number of people seem perplexed by what Obama did in his years as a community organizer and why that experience would be relevant to the Presidency. A few on the right, including Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin, have tried to capitalize on this uncertainty by mocking this experience. As a result, over a 130,000 people donated a total of $10 million within 24 hours of Palin’s speech. Some people understood what community organizing meant and were justifiably outraged.

To understand community organizing, you need to understand poverty. This is not the sort of poverty that wonders how it pays the bills at the end of the month or how to pay off credit card debt. This is the sort of poverty that has no expectation of paying off the bills or ever getting out of debt. This is the sort of poverty where things most of us take for granted—like literacy or a work ethic or fathers or heat or legal jobs—may be missing entirely. This poverty goes beyond a lack of money into a lack of empowerment.

This level poverty will seem alien to some, and most of us are more comfortable telling ourselves it doesn’t exist, or that if it exists, it only exists in far away places we shouldn’t feel responsible for. I almost feel bad saying that it’s real and it’s here. It’s like telling a kid there’s no Santa Claus.

A friend of mine told the story of getting to know a little five-year-old boy in a part of D.C. that the tour buses don’t go. The kid was one of a handful that had apparently mistaken the house she and her friends lived in for a youth center. (“Easy mistake when you consider how many board games I travel with.”) One day he told my friend that he and his mother would be moving on soon. Surprised, she asked where they were moving to. The kid explained that they had no food left and soon they would be “moving on.”

What do you say to the kid whose mother has apparently given up all hope and resigned herself to death by starvation? Obviously, start with, “Here’s some food.” But the food is really only the symptom. All those canned-food drives and days in the soup kitchen have had an impact. Nobody needs to starve to death in America. The underlying problem is that the mother has apparently given up hope for anything other than death by starvation. The answer my friend gave may capture the heart of community organizing. “You have neighbors who will help you. Nobody is going to pass on.”

Even when many social structures have broken down, a community remains. It may just be a group of mothers—or grandmothers—trying to hold things together. The fathers may be missing or incarcerated. Apartments may be as likely to have cockroaches as to have heat. Sure—there are laws about habitability—but many people don’t have the self-advocacy skills to see them enforced. The sense of disenfranchisement is so high that the government may be viewed as an intimidating and unapproachable monolith.

Community organizing tries to empower these community ties so those growing up in the community see an alternative to the gangs. The organizer will help people write letters to their landlords requesting repairs and advise them on what to do if the landlords refuse. The organizer will encourage people to come to city council meetings that discuss issues that will affect their community. “Empowerment” is perhaps too strong a word. Perhaps “enfranchisement.” The community organizer seeks to give that forgotten lower class the same political voice the middle class takes for granted. If a community organizer does his or her job properly, you will not hear about the organizer—only about the community.

It’s the sort of cause that brings to mind the story about the man walking along the beach after the tide, throwing starfish back into the sea. The other man told him he was wasting his effort fighting the entire ocean on behalf of the starfish. There will always be more stranded starfish—and his efforts won’t make a difference. The first man throws another starfish back into the ocean and answers, “I made a difference to that one.” Ultimately, the forces working against the community are likely to be too much for one person to deal with. Successes are few, incremental, and incredibly important to those they benefit. If a community can prevent a sewage treatment plant from moving in next door, the world may not notice, but they sure will. Enabling and connecting local churches, small businesses, and other community organizations can empower local leaders who will gradually improve the community—or at least slow its decline.

As might be expected, most of Obama’s victories as a community organizer were community-level victories. There were frustrations. He brought his own approach to community organizing—advocating attention both to larger goals and to the immediate project. He remained committed to the goals of community organization, but occasionally sought to reform some of the methods.

How is this a qualification to be President?

Some people have been asking how this prepares somebody to be President. Community organizing does not give anybody serious executive experience. It does not give you experience in foreign policy or macroeconomics or national politics. Nobody looks community organizing as a logical launch pad for Presidential ambitions. I can see why some of Obama’s detractors see this as something to mock—but they are wrong to do so.

Obama’s time as a community organizer is analogous to John McCain’s time as a prisoner of war. Obviously, they’re very different situations—but it’s not immediately clear what one does in either situation that would qualify one to be President. Yet both shaped the character and reveal the values of the candidate. In both cases, what the candidate did is less important than what the candidate learned. Nobody asks McCain what he accomplished as a POW. Nobody asks who he led or what he learned about foreign policy during this time. If they did, they would be missing the point. In refusing a chance to go home out of order, McCain proved his willingness to put principle before himself. Obama did the same when he chose community organizing over more lucrative opportunities. McCain understands the sacrifices demanded of soldiers sent to war. Obama understands the complexities of urban poverty. Both are important things for a President to know.

For those who just don’t care about poverty or how people other than themselves and their immediate friends and family are doing, community organizing is a hard sell. But for those with a heart for poverty, or those who truly care about the least of their fellow citizens, this is a critically important credential. Obama surrounded himself with some of the neediest people in the country and understands their problems. Even if you disagree with his policies, you should respect this experience and knowledge.

Why is a President who understands poverty important?

We’ve seen the consequences of leaders who do not understand the problems facing the country. It leads to expensive programs that accomplish next to nothing. Most Americans, like me, would support programs that would actually significantly reduce poverty and its causes even if it meant a significant tax increase.

Of course, it wouldn’t mean a tax increase because drastically reducing poverty would drastically reduce crime, which would drastically reduce the amount we’re paying to incarcerate 1% of our population. But so far, we have not seen a government program we think has a real chance at actually reducing poverty because most of our leaders don’t understand poverty. They may understand the pressures facing the middle class, but they are unaware of anything below that. So while I would happily support an effective program, if the money is just going to waste, I can find a better use for it. You cannot reduce poverty if you don’t know what poverty is. Obama understands poverty.

Why is mockery of community organizing so inflammatory?

When Giuliani and Palin mocked community organizing, they were speaking from ignorance to ignorance.

Some of their backers have taken the criticism a step further. In a Wall Street Journal editorial, James Taranto contrasts the community Obama worked in with that of “normal Americans.” He suggests that those living in subsidized appartments with broken plumbing needed to “call a plumber” to get the toilet fixed. First, as anybody who has ever lived in any kind of apartment knows, keeping the toilet and other fixtures in good repair is the landlord’s responsibility—whether the landlord is a private individual or a government entity. Secondly, if you can afford to pay the plumber, what are you doing living in subsidized housing? In part, it may be ignorance people find so offensive.

But these attacks go past ignorance. It isn’t hard to figure out what a community organizer does—and most people who are discussing community organizing should have at least had the minimal diligence to read the Wikipedia article. The mockers are suggesting that working with the unempowered and impoverished is not valuable. It implies not only that they do not care about the poorest of the poor but that they believe those trying to help them are wasting their effort. The mockery is not a criticism of the methods or the efficacy but a criticism of the very value of the task.

When I last checked, we were supposed to have a government of the people, by the people. This means all of the people. Obama has the background to know what is needed to address poverty, what will help, and what will be a waste of resources.

What separates Obama from the past 30 years of pricey and mediocre social programs? Obama understands what he is dealing with. He worked with it directly as a community organizier. He saw first hand both the successes and failures of government policy. If Obama ultimately decided he could serve the country—all of the country—better as President than as a community organizer, I agree with him.