Yesterday's post with the quotation of Saul Alinsky, proved quite provocative!
I, perhaps naively, disregarded or didn't fully understand how visceral the reaction would be by some conservative readers. Nice to know the blog isn't being ignored though.
But I'm also certain that much of the reaction has been due to Gov. Sarah Palin's disparaging remarks regarding Barak Obama's career as a community organizer. Former mayor, Rudy Giuliani also mocked that past as did former New Jersey Governor George Pataki.
If you read the post, my reaction and the back and forth on it, it is probably not too hard to tell that I am pretty offended by what was said and may even be considered a little defensive about the issue, by some.
I apologize for the defensive tone - but not for the vigorous defense, or support of community organizing and its value to our society.
You see I remember how, in Dallas and other areas, citizens in poor and neglected areas were totally ignored by public and elected officials - even the one's they had voted for! When we organized Dallas Area Interfaith, an Industrial Areas Foundation affiliate, and we began calling to make appointments with city council members to discuss issues that were important to us, those responses were often met with, 'Now who are you? Why do you want to meet with the Council member? Have you attended the town hall meetings?' These were questions which, for the most part, neither business leaders, nor our fellow citizens living in more affluent areas of the city had to answer. We know, we proved it. Those more middle class leaders in the organization hardly ever had the same problem. We also were aware that the political culture of our city pit communities against one another - so that middle class white Dallasites, didn't understand that blacks and hispanics wanted the same things for their communites as they did.
Community organizers helped us put together an organization that crossed color, politically ideology and geographic lines in which leaders would develop an agenda of issues based on shared democratic values and the interests of our families and communities. We made a commitment to a relationship in which we could discuss, debate and argue, but remain committed to one another around this agenda of issues.
We did not ask for the government system to be 'overturned', nor were we asking for a socialist form of government. We were asking for things like, recreation centers in our communities, we were asking for effective code enforcement. We were asking for our school district to provide funding for after school programs which would match the investment of the city of Dallas' parks and recreation department. We were asking for the school district to work with us in organizing after school programs that would include the substantive involvement of parents, who would work with teachers in the planning, design and implementation of those programs.
This organization would take no public money, but would be funded by the churches, each of which internally made the decision to be a part of the organization.
Pretty revolutionary stuff, huh?
Eventually we did get a little more sophisticated in our 'asks': public funding for job training, mortgage subsidy to stimulate the redevelopment of poor neighborhoods with housing. We worked for local campus school reform, funded by the state for increased teacher and parent training, which would eventually put our children on track for college.
What was the result of this work? The area in which we advocated for mortgage subsidy is now undergoing a significant redevelopment the cost of which far outstrips the initial funding requests. And the 50 vacant lots which now have homes on them are now tax producing entities.
Not only were we able to pilot the after school programs, but eventually this led to after school programs in nearly every elementary school in Dallas. And the school district eventually adopted our concept of parent academies to teach parents what parents have to do to understand what's happening in their school and get their children on a path to college.
In job training, a joint study by the county judge and the mayor recommended the type of jobs driven, jobs training program that our program initiated. A program, by the way, that was designed in partnership with a professor at the University of Texas and an advisory board that was made up of our members and chaired by the Roger Enrico, at that time head of Pepsico. The program placed 200 unemployed and underemployed in living wage jobs.
When our county hospital board of managers was threatening to severely curtail indigent health care by scapegoating undocumented immigrants as the cause of its budget shortfall, our organization got involved and showed that it really wasn't the undocumented immigrants, but our more affluent counties who had no county hospital and whose citizens, were coming to Parkland and not paying. Along with that, we got the board of managers, who held their meetings in the afternoons, when working citizens could not attend, to have an evening session in the community to listen to how their plans for budget cuts would impact their families.
Throughout these processes, we had community organizers who taught us how to view a position strategically, taught us how to have the individual meetings, meetings with public officials, business leaders, church leaders, academics that would make this work effective.
They helped us do research, reading budgets and analyzing them so that we would know where the money could be found. In almost every case, it was never a case of more money, but the reallocation of dollars that were being spent ineffectively or money that was not being spent at all and was in danger of being returned to Washington.
The community organizers worked long hours, in most cases 60+ hours, to help us put together the constituencies and identify the allies with whom we would work.
These community organizers made sure that our judgement was informed, not just by reading books and magazine articles, but by meeting with the authors: Nicholas Leeman, Cornell West, William Julius Wilson, David Tracey, Dick Levy, Richard Murnane and Glen Loury. We had seminars with politicians, professors from M.I.T., Harvard University and other leaders from other affiliate organizations who were doing the same work with great effectiveness.
Most recently, when the Federal government failed Katrina survivors, these organizations helped to organize the evacuees to navigate the maze of confusion in which FEMA was, more often that, not complicit.
"Being mayor of a small town is sorta like being a community organizer - only with real responsibilities."
The work of community organizers was the work which helped citizens shape the work of major metropolitan mayors so that the cities they led would no longer ignore the real agenda of real citizens. The community organizers I worked with worked with citizens to tell government what they really wanted, instead of having government tell citizens what they ought to want.
For that reason, politicians did not always fall in love with us. There were some who could not stand us, but they could not ignore us because they understood that they were going to have to respect organized people in the same way they respected organized money.
This, by the way, was the same training that Barak Obama received. Ed Chambers, who succeeded Saul Alinsky and Ernie Cortez were the two who trained him and they also trained me.
This was the first test of Gov. Palin as a Vice-Presidential candidate: not just the ability to make a public speech, but in that speech to show how she respected the lives of all of citizens, not just her 'base'. While many are extolling the her speech as 'hitting it out of the park', I think that with one sentence she showed herself, snide, disrespectful, dismissive and remarkably ill-informed. I don't want to believe that this is what she is, and I don't believe that is what she was trying to show.
I do know that in trying to influence the choice of those of us who must vote for a president and a running mate deserve much better.