A New Wave of Community Organizers for the Obama Era

I usually have about 20 students in the
Community Organizing course I teach each year at Occidental College in
Los Angeles. So far, 42 students have registered for next fall's class.

I haven't all of a sudden become a more popular
professor. There's clearly something happening on American campuses and
in the broader culture that's tapping the pent up idealism of today's
students. An important element of that new mood on campus is Barack

More and more college students want careers
where they can help make society more humane, fair, and environmentally
sustainable. They want to put their skills, their idealism, and their
energy to work promoting social justice. My colleagues around the
country tell me that the same thing is happening on their campuses. A
growing number of students are asking faculty and staff about
internships, summer jobs, and careers working with non-profit,
advocacy, and grassroots organizing groups. Why wait on tables when you
could be changing the world?

That's what reporter Sara Rimer learned when
she interviewed college students (including several of mine) for her
article in this Sunday's New York Times, "Community Organizing Never Looked So Good."

Given that headline, and the fact that it
appears in the Fashion & Style section, you might think that Rimer
asked students what they were wearing to the next protest
demonstration. But, in fact, hers is a serious piece of reporting about
what today's student activists want to do when they graduate. Many of
them want to become community organizers, inspired by our new

Fortunately, there are many more opportunities
today to work for social change than there were when I was in college
in the 1960s or even when Obama was in college (at Occidental and
Columbia) in the 1980s. The number of nonprofit organizations engaged
in the struggle for justice -- community groups, unions, environmental
and consumer groups, public health and food justice groups, civil
rights organizations, women's and gay rights groups, fair trade and
anti-sweatshop groups, groups advocating for children, for the
disabled, for the elderly, and for immigrants -- has mushroomed
dramatically. In addition to the thousands of issue-oriented advocacy
groups, there are many publications, think tanks, and, of course,
websites that promote progressive causes, most of which didn't exist
even 20 years ago.

As Rimer discovered, community organizing
groups and networks like ACORN, PICO, DART, the Center for Community
Change, the Industrial Areas Foundation, National People's Action, U.S.
Action, Gamaliel Foundation (whose Chicago affiliate hired Obama after
college) and others are getting more applicants from college students
and recent graduates. Many of them already have some organizing
experience through college internships, summer jobs, or volunteering
for political campaigns like Obama's presidential crusade.

Perhaps because so many of them get practical
experience while still in college, working with off-campus groups,
today's student activists are much more pragmatic, savvy, and patient
than their counterparts in the 1960s. They are skeptical but not
cynical. They are not paralyzed by old ideological battles or identity
politics. They respect differences of opinion, including religious
beliefs, as well as the right to dissent. They understand that they can
disagree with their government and still love their country and its
ideals. They want major changes in our institutions and policies, but
they know that people need to win stepping-stone reforms before they
can envision a different kind of world.

For sure, student interest in political
activism and community organizing was going on long before the Obama
campaign. In the 1990s, students mobilized against sweatshops and for
"fair trade" consumer products, in support of "living wages" for
university employees, and around global warming and "greening"
America's college campuses. The AFL-CIO began the Organizing Institute,
a summer internship program for college students who want to learn
about union organizing. After years of watching the conservative
movement spend millions of dollars to recruit and train activists on
campuses, and plug them into jobs with politicians, think tanks, and
right-wing publications, liberal groups like the Center for American
Progress, Wellstone Action, Democracy Matters, the Student
Environmental Action Coalition and others began to focus more attention
on college students -- to invest in the next generation of
progressives. In addition, over the past decade, a growing number of
colleges and universities embraced the idea of "service learning,"
linking classrooms and the community.

But there is no doubt that Obama's campaign
and victory lit a spark, accelerating student interest in politics in
general and grassroots organizing in particular. Millions of young
people, including college students and recent graduates, got involved
in the Obama campaign. Thousands learned organizing skills at Camp
Obama training sessions. The efforts of these young people -- as well
as the expanded youth vote -- made a big difference in Obama's triumph
last November. Many of the students who volunteered in the campaign got
a taste of organizing and now want to pursue it as a career.

In many ways, Obama has given community
organizing a new cache. He has described the three years he spent after
college as a community organizer in Chicago as "the best education I
ever had."

Obama has provided enormous visibility and
credibility to organizing as a career and profession. Obama's campaign
stump speeches typically included references to America's organizing
tradition. "Nothing in this country worthwhile has ever happened except
when somebody somewhere was willing to hope," Obama explained. "That is
how workers won the right to organize against violence and
intimidation. That's how women won the right to vote. That's how young
people traveled south to march and to sit in and to be beaten, and some
went to jail and some died for freedom's cause."

Change comes about, Obama said, by "imagining,
and then fighting for, and then working for, what did not seem possible
before." His campaign slogan -- "Yes, We Can" -- was borrowed from
Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers movement

Credit must go, too, to Sarah Palin, who
attacked Obama's community organizing experience during her Republican
National Convention speech in St. Paul last September, and then, along
with John McCain, went on the warpath against ACORN, one of the
nation's largest and most effective community organizing groups. The
GOP assault triggered a huge backlash
not only among community organizers all over the country (who were
happy for the free publicity) but also among newspaper columnists,
editorial writers, readers who wrote letters to the editor, and
bloggers. In the aftermath of that attack, more newspapers and
magazines published stories about community organizing -- describing
and praising the activists who improve communities by bringing people
together and giving people the confidence and leadership skills to
promote change -- than had been written in the entire previous decade.

Despite our serious economic crisis, the
country's mood has changed for the better. Americans are worried about
their jobs and their families, but they still give the new president
high marks for moving quickly to address our problems. This is
important, because significant improvements only occur when people
believe that things should be changed and that they can be changed. Obama has restored a sense of possibility and hope to American politics.

Even so, if Obama has any chance to be a
transformational President, like FDR, it will require a powerful
progressive movement that aligns itself with, but isn't controlled by,
the young president and progressive forces in Congress. There is plenty
of evidence from polls that Americans want a more activist government
to address the problems of economic insecurity, health care, the
environment, and U.S. military intervention in Iraq and elsewhere. To
win universal health care, labor law reform, or legislation to reduce
global warming -- and to stimulate the troubled economy to promote
shared prosperity and green jobs, and rescue people from
foreclosures -- Obama will confront fierce resistance from powerful
forces in the business community and their friends in Congress.

The Millennial generation - Americans
now under 30 - voted overwhelmingly for Obama. They are also ready to
follow Obama's lead and join the growing ranks of progressive

They also know, however, that grassroots
organizing is only one way to bring about change. Increasingly, for
example, students who go to law school want to use their legal talents
to right wrongs rather than represent banks, corporations, and
developers. Fortunately, there are a growing number of public interest
law firms around the country that link lawyers to social movements
concerned about the environment, housing, consumer protection,
immigrant rights, and other issues.

Likewise, students interested in medicine and
health care can take many paths to help change our failing health care
system. A growing number of students are pursuing careers in public
health, where they can combine their concerns about the environment,
medicine, social justice, and creating livable communities. Or they can
go to medical, nursing, or nutrition school and use their skills by
working in community clinics that serve low-income people and agitate
for change with such groups as Physicians for a National Health
Program, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the California
Nurses Association.

Whatever profession they pursue -- architect,
city planner, teacher, biologist, engineer, nutritionist, accountant,
aide to an elected official, child care provider, lawyer, or
physician, among them -- they can use their talents to help move
society in a more progressive direction or to protect and defend the
status quo. They understand that it isn't simply a matter of having
skills. It's a question of what values those skills will be used to
promote -- and what kinds of organizations they work for.

Obama has already helped change the nation's
mood -- and helped to inspire a new generation of organizers and
activists. More and more young people want to pursue a career with a

But will the nonprofit groups that help
advocate and organize for change have the resources to employ them?
Many environmental, community, and other groups that do this work are
facing difficult times, since they depend on members' dues, foundation
grants, bake sales and other fundraisers to keep their organizations
afloat. And will today's young people be able to pursue their ideals if
they can't afford to stay in college, or if they are saddled with
college loans that they can't afford to pay back on an activist's

Here's another way that Obama, and Congress,
can help. They have already expanded the federal budget for AmeriCorps,
the nation's major community service program. But what's needed is a
major commitment similar to the GI Bill that gave returning World War 2
veterans funds to attend college. America should guarantee all
students in two- and four-year colleges financial assistance --
allowing them to graduate debt-free -- if they pursue careers in public
and community service. This means encouraging doctors and nurses to
work in clinics serving the poor, architects and planners to work for
nonprofit groups building mixed-income housing, teachers to work at
public schools in low-income areas, engineers and technicians to work
with organizations that design and install "green" technologies in our
homes and workplaces, and community organizers to work with groups that
help people help themselves, through their faith-based institutions,
neighborhoods, and schools, in the great American tradition of

A character in George Bernard Shaw's play, Back to Methusaleh, says, "You see things and you say, 'why?' But I dream things that never were, and I say, "why not?'"

That's the essence of an activist -- someone
who doesn't just criticize awful conditions, but tries to change them,
not on his or her own, but with others. We endured eight years of
White House contempt for the practical idealism that makes change
possible. Obama has restored Americans' faith in themselves.

You can find that new mood on almost every
college campus today. When a skeptic asks me if the students in my
community organizing class have what it takes to change the world, I'm
proud to say: Yes, They Can.

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