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Community Organizers Press Obama for Real Change

Ira Chernus

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 ex-offenders
  • Working people should be encouraged and educated about their right to organize, so as to engage in collective action or bargaining

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 Jarrett, 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.


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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 participate. 

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.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  "Realizing the Promise: A Forum on Community, Faith and Democracy" will be broadcast in real time on Thursday, December 4, 3 - 6 PM EST at  

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