Wednesday morning I got an e-mail from a former member of our Sojourners community. Perry Perkins is now a community organizer in Louisiana with affiliates of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). "Perk," as we used to call him, reported on the enormous consequences of 2 million people being evacuated because of Hurricane Gustav, much of the state now being without power, how hard cities like Baton Rouge were hit, the tens of thousands of people in shelters and churches, and the continuing problems caused by heavy rains and flooding. Then he talked about how their community organizers were responding to all of this -- responding to hundreds of service calls, assisting local officials in evacuation plans, aiding evacuees without transportation, coordinating shelters and opening new ones, providing food, essential services, and financial aid to those in most need. Since Katrina, Perry's Louisiana interfaith organizations have played a lead role in securing millions of dollars to help thousands of families return to New Orleans and rebuild their homes and their lives.
Then Wednesday night I heard Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin say that her experience as "a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities." The convention crowd in St. Paul thought that was very funny. But it wasn't. It was actually quite insulting to the army of community organizers who work in the most challenging places across the country and have such a tremendous impact on the everyday lives of millions of people. I guess Palin and her fellow Republican delegates don't know much about that. The "actual responsibilities" of community organizers literally provide the practical support, collective strength, and hope for a better future that low-income families need to survive,
Community organizers are now most focused in the faith community, working with tens of thousands of pastors and laypeople in thousands of congregations around the country. Faith-based organizing is the critical factor in many low-income communities in the country's poorest urban and rural areas, and church leaders are often the biggest supporters of community organizers. And many of them felt deeply offended by Palin's remarks. Here are a few of their responses:
"As a lifelong Republican, the comments I heard last night about community organizing crossed the line. It is one thing to question someone's experience, another to demean the work of millions of hardworking Americans who take time to get involved in their communities. When people come together in my church hall to improve our community, they're building the Kingdom of God in San Diego. We see the fruits of community organizing in safer streets, new parks, and new affordable housing. It's the spirit of democracy for people to have a say and we need more of it," said Bishop Roy Dixon, prelate of the Southern California 4th ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Church of God in Christ, member of the San Diego Organizing Project and former board chair of PICO National Network.
They have also pointed out how the most important victories for social justice have come more from community organizers than elected officials.
"We can thank community organizing for the weekend, the eight-hour day, integrated swimming pools, public transportation, health care for children and safe neighborhoods. Community organizing is behind most of the family-oriented initiatives we benefit from every day. I am proud to work for change in my country, my state, and my city as a community organizer, following the great traditions of Dr. Martin Luther King," said Laura Barrett, national policy director of Gamaliel/Transportation Equity Network (TEN).
And when you put the accomplishments of politicians alongside those of community organizers for poor families, it isn't even close. Without the pressure from community organizers and the movements they lead, there would often be nobody to hold politicians accountable.
"Politicians should thank community organizers, not insult them. As a longtime organizer, I've seen time and time again that we are the ones who make government work for the poor, the powerless and the marginalized. Politicians' policies and promises would amount to nothing without grassroots activists to hold them accountable. We are leaders of faith and stewards of democracy. In a time when the face of faith in politics is often ugly, community organizing is a valuable example of faith's positive role in public life," said Pastor Mark Diemer, senior pastor of Grace of God Lutheran Church in Columbus, Ohio, and a DART community organizer.
Palin's effort to attack the experience of Barack Obama, a former community organizer in Chicago, turned into a bad joke and an insult. Palin owes a lot of good people an apology.