Saturday, September 6, 2008

Community Organizing Explained

"Over the past five years, I've often had a difficult time explaining my profession to folks."

So said Barack Obama, about his former profession of community organizing (in After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois, 1990).

Actually, it's easy to explain the profession of community organizing, and it was never done better than by Tom Wolfe in his 1970 essay about Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (you can read it here).

[Community organizers] were the kind of people the social-welfare professionals in the Kennedy Administration had in mind when they planned the poverty program in the first place. It was a truly adventurous and experimental approach they had. Instead of handing out alms, which never seemed to change anything, they would encourage the people in the ghettos to organize. They would help them become powerful enough to force the Establishment to give them what they needed. From the beginning the poverty program was aimed at helping ghetto people rise up against their oppressors. It was a scene in which the federal government came into the ghetto and said, "Here is some money and some field advisors. Now you organize your own pressure groups."

To sell the poverty program, its backers had to give it the protective coloration of "jobs" and "education," the Job Corps and Operation Head Start, things like that, things the country as a whole could accept. "Jobs" and "education" were things everybody could agree on. They were part of the free-enterprise ethic. They weren't uncomfortable subjects like racism and the class structure--and giving the poor the money and the tools to fight City Hall. But from the first that was what the lion's share of the poverty budget went into. It went into "community organizing," which was the bureaucratic term for "power to the people," the term for finding the real leaders of the ghetto and helping them organize the poor.

When you get down to the basics, community organizations and community development corporations are simply vessels for receiving and disbursing federal funds in the form of Community Development Block Grants. If you want the CDBG money, you first have to create an organization, which means you need a organizer or two to do the necessary paperwork and jump through the bureaucratic hoops. From the above link:

Citizen Participation - A [CDBG] grantee must develop and follow a detailed plan that provides for and encourages citizen participation. This integral process emphasizes participation by persons of low or moderate income, particularly residents of predominantly low- and moderate-income neighborhoods, slum or blighted areas, and areas in which the grantee proposes to use CDBG funds. The plan must provide citizens with the following: reasonable and timely access to local meetings; an opportunity to review proposed activities and program performance; provide for timely written answers to written complaints and grievances; and identify how the needs of non-English speaking residents will be met in the case of public hearings where a significant number of non-English speaking residents can be reasonably expected to participate.

I've encountered many such organizers and organizations in the 15 or so years I've done various types of volunteer work in Northern Virginia, and they were all primarily funding pass-through mechanisms, although a few of them were also safehavens for out-of-office politicians bidding their time between elections. It is clear what those community organizers do, but many of them surround themselves with an impenetrable word cloud of high-sounding justifications for the same reason an octopus emits ink when threatened by predators. The plain fact is that many community organizers don't really develop anything tangible with that development money except for their own offices, cars, debit cards, cell phones, expense accounts, travel vouchers and salaries.

Hence the difficulty Obama had explaining exactly what it was he did for a living for a few years in Chicago. According to the most detailed news media accounts I've seen, Obama's community development organization received about $400,000 in block grants over three years but could claim only the usual nebulous accomplishments, such as 'supporting' this group and 'standing by' that one and 'empowering' the other one.

I got a kick out of the way Obama's campaign manager responded to the laughter at the Republican Convention about community organizing:

Both Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin specifically mocked Barack's experience as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago more than two decades ago, where he worked with people who had lost jobs and been left behind when the local steel plants closed. Let's clarify something for them right now.

Community organizing is how ordinary people respond to out-of-touch politicians and their failed policies.

Enough is enough. Make your voice heard loud and clear by making a donation right now. Thank you for joining more than 2 million ordinary Americans who refuse to be silenced.

That's perfect. I don't know what 'working with' unemployed steel workers entailed exactly, although I doubt it meant something actually useful like finding them other jobs. I do know what 'responding to out-of-touch politicians and their failed policies' means, it means Mau-Mauing some hapless Chicago city agency employees exactly as Tom Wolfe described happening in San Francisco back in 1970.

And the icing on the cake is that Obama invites you to fight these outrageous slurs against community organizers by sending him some cash. Please dig deep, ordinary people across America are depending on you to keep the money flowing to their community organizers.

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