Organizing Hope

Regardless of the outcome of the current presidential race, Sen. Barack Obama has become a central, defining figure in America’s political culture. He has raised a flag for a new kind of politics—aiming for common ground and consensus—and millions of Americans have saluted. In addition, Obama’s life story seems, to many Americans, to offer the possibility of new, bigger, and better vision of their country and its place in the world. He bridges black and white, global North and South, Muslim and Christian.

Another important, less-discussed element in Obama’s story is the three years he spent as a staff organizer on the South Side of Chicago for the Gamaliel Foundation. It was during those years that he found his home and his church, and it was as a faith-based community organizer that Obama developed his sense of what politics is about. When people respond to Obama on the campaign trail, they are, in no small part, actually responding to the political vision and political culture nourished and promoted by church-based community organizations.

Obama’s alma mater, Gamaliel, is one of several community organizing networks that have sprung from the original vision of Saul Alinsky and the organization he founded, the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). As that vision has been adapted in recent decades, especially by Ed Chambers, Alinsky’s successor, it focuses on drawing people into active participation in the political and economic decisions that affect their lives through the vehicle of their religious congregations. This brand of community organizing is congregation-based and faith-based.

The aim of church-based community organizing is to build metropolitan-area networks of community leaders able to mobilize large numbers of their parishioners and neighbors to change public policy and hold public officials accountable. The key to the community organizing process is listening to the people. The organizer identifies potential leaders in the local community and spends hours hearing their ideas about the community’s needs. These leaders are in turn trained to hold similar listening sessions with their neighbors and parishioners, and from all this grassroots input, issues are selected and strategies hatched.

When the time comes to confront the powers that be, the indigenous leaders lead. The organizer stays at the back of the room. He or she is a teacher, guide, and resource person, but not the leader—sometimes the coach, but never the quarterback.

Thats's an unusual professional background for an American politician. I don’t think we’ve ever had a major party candidate who spent his formative years sitting in poor people’s living rooms listening to their ideas. In addition, Obama’s training as a church-based community organizer taught him to think about politics in terms of the intersection of power and values. Organizers are trained to strive for public language that forges the largest possible consensus around commonly held values and interests, avoiding divisive issues and rhetoric.

Writing about his community organizing experience in 1990, when he was still a student at Harvard’s law school, Obama discussed the deep satisfaction of “helping a group of housewives sit across the negotiating table with the mayor of America’s third-largest city and hold their own, or a retired steelworker stand before a TV camera and give voice to the dreams he has for his grandchild’s future.” Organizing, Obama wrote, teaches “the beauty and strength of everyday people.”

Rev. Alvin Love, a black South Side preacher whom Obama recruited as an organizer, told The Nation in 2007, “Everything I see [in Obama’s campaign] reflects that community organizing experience. I see the consensus-building, his connection to people and listening to their needs and trying to find common ground. I think at his heart Barack is a community organizer .... It’s just a larger community to be organized.”

If Obama offers hope to America, it is because, as a church-based community organizer, he found one of the deepest repositories of hope in American life.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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