Community Organizers Press Obama for Real Change

This just in: Valerie Jarrett, recently appointed
White House senior adviser, and Melody Barnes, the next director of the Domestic
Policy Council, will meet with 2,000 community organizing leaders at "Realizing the Promise: A Forum
on Community, Faith and Democracy" on Thursday, December 4.

This just in: Valerie Jarrett, recently appointed
White House senior adviser, and Melody Barnes, the next director of the Domestic
Policy Council, will meet with 2,000 community organizing leaders at "Realizing the Promise: A Forum
on Community, Faith and Democracy" on Thursday, December 4.

Why is that big news? Because these community organizers are
working for a kind of change that's radically different from what the Wall
Street veterans on Obama's economic team have in mind. Consider what the
organizers are telling the administration they want, according to the websites
of the Gamaliel Foundation
and the Center
for Community Change
, co-sponsors of the Forum:

  • All policies should favor cooperative ventures over
    individual ownership
  • Universal access to
    affordable, quality health care for all residents of the United
    States. ... expose the harmful role of the
    private market in our health care system
  • Public funding for families and individuals to access
    decent affordable homes....all communities within a
    metropolitan area shall include their fair share of the region's low income and
    affordable housing
  • Comprehensive
    Immigration Reform ... legalization of the current
    undocumented population ... work permits and a
    path to citizenship for those here
  • Two million living wage
    construction jobs for low-income people, minorities, women and
  • Working people should be encouraged and educated about
    their right to organize, so as to engage in collective action or

That's a rather radical
agenda, by the standards of Obama's economic team. They aren't likely to give
community organizers the time of day, much less any time out of their precious
days working to rescue the capitalist elite.

Yet here is Valerie
, an intimate friend and mentor to both Barack and Michelle for two
decades, spending an afternoon with this bunch of organizers. There is no one
Barack trusts more than Jarrett. Everyone in Washington wants a piece of her time now,
because she's a direct link to "the man" himself.

Obama could have made the
organizers happy enough just by sending Barnes, though it's not clear whether
her Domestic Policy Council will have much power at all. Jarrett is the woman who really has
power in the Oval Office. The fact that she will be at the organizers' forum
says something.

Exactly what does it say?
Is Obama just a sentimental guy who wants to do something nice for old friends
in the Gamaliel Foundation, where he got his start as an organizer? No one who
has watched this shrewd, hard-nosed politician rise to power is not going to
believe that for a minute.

It's far more likely that
Obama and Jarrett see some advantage in sending her to talk with 2,000
grassroots leaders. They know the first lesson that community organizing
teaches: Political change comes
from power. The second lesson is that there are two kinds of power: Organized
money and organized people. Obama has paid his dues to organized money by
putting all those proteges of Robert Rubin at the top of his economic team. He
knows they'll be pushing him forcefully to the right.

If he wants to be free to
move in whatever direction he chooses -- and that freedom is what smart
presidents value above all -- he's got to create some countervailing force
pushing powerfully to the left. So it's in his interest to build up the forces
of community organizing. That's one reason Valerie Jarrett will meet with the
community leaders and tell them how much she and the president-elect agree with
their vision of genuine change we can believe in.

Of course the audience will
know as well as Jarrett that there's a huge gulf between saying nice words and
enacting actual policies. No one expects many of Jarrett's words to get
translated into action. No one can
predict whether any of them will. If you just read the mass media headlines, you
would think that the people don't have any power at all right now, that it's all
with the big money. All too many progressives seem to feel that way too.

But Obama and Jarrett spent
too many years in Chicago, seeing the power of organized people
at work, to take that for granted.
They saw the power of organized people most recently in their own
successful campaign to win the White House, one that even George W. Bush admits was "a well-organized
... textbook campaign." And the textbook was written by Saul Alinsky and the other
great community organizers who have inspired outfits like Gamaliel and the
Center for Community Change.

Now Obama's people are
trying to use the same techniques to build a grassroots organization of their
own, one that will serve whatever policies the new administration cooks up. But
it's a dangerous game. Like Dr. Frankenstein, they could easily find their
creature turning against them -- especially if the local neighborhood meetings
are controlled by people with an agenda as progressive as the "Realizing the
Promise" Forum.

Once a passionate vision is
coupled with the power tactics of community organizing, it can be hard to stop
the vision from turning into reality. That's exactly why Obama is taking the
risk of creating an organized network of his own. But suppose that network's
vision is as progressive as it is passionate? And why shouldn't we make sure it
is? We are all invited to

Obama has already seen that
disorganized progressive power can have an impact on his newly forming
administration. The mass media unanimously blamed pressure from "liberal
bloggers" for blocking the appointment of John Brennan as CIA director. Whether
the media got the cause right or not, there's now a perception abroad that
pressure from the left can make a difference if it's strong enough.

The Center for Community
Change and Gamaliel are dedicated to the proposition that people are a lot
stronger when they are highly organized and engaged in direct talks with their
elected officials. They know
perfectly well that the officials are out to use them as much as they are out to
work the officials. Their job is to be strategically smart enough to get at
least part of what they want. That's why they keep the lines of communication
open -- both in public and in private.

As every community
organizer knows, much of the work of politics goes on behind closed doors. All
these organizers are not coming to DC just to watch a big public event. They
will also be talking to as many officials as they can get a hold of. They may get to see some current Bush
administration officials. But they'll probably find a lot more doors open among
the Obama transition team, as will all activists for progressive causes.

Look what happened a couple
of weeks ago, when leaders from another national organizing network, PICO, came
to Washington.
They got great coverage in the
mass media for public events demanding a stop to preventable foreclosures. Meanwhile, out of the journalists' view,
they were talking privately with officials at Treasury and the FDIC as
well as the Obama transition team, including Melody Barnes.

Also out of view, PICO
leaders from around the country were talking to Barnes and other Obama
transition leaders about their ongoing drive to secure universal health care,
starting with fully funding the State Children's Health Insurance Program
(SCHIP). All this, just two weeks
after Election Day, when it's hard to imagine the transition team even had time
to breathe, much less talk privately with an organization pushing a health care
plan far more radical than what Obama is likely to approve.

Yet the doors were open.
Again, no one thinks the community organizing groups will get everything or
nearly everything they want. But the fact that they are banging on those
administration doors and being let in means that there is organized pressure
from the left to resist the tremendous pressure from the right.

That's one reason it really
mattered who won this year's presidential election. A McCain administration
would not be likely to open those doors even an inch to grassroots leaders. Now
the doors will be opened. But people well trained in community organizing won't
be there to supplicate. They will
be there to play power politics.

As Obama learned on the
streets of Chicago, elected officials, no matter what they
say, inevitably bend to the winds of power. If the people don't like the
direction that organized money is headed in, it's up to the people to organize,
to be strong and effective enough to bend their elected officials to the
people's will. Now that the
administration doors are open, even a crack, it's up to the people to be as
well-organized, as well-prepared, as persistent, and as smart as the officials
on the other side of the desk.
That's how we'll make change we can really believe in.

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