Issue #149, Spring 2007
Obama's Third Way
Barack Obama carried lessons he learned as a community organizer to the political arena. Both organizers and politicians would be wise to study them closely.
By David Moberg
As the U.S. steel industry collapsed in the late
1970s, so did communities in South Chicago and Northwest Indiana that
depended on steel and other manufacturing jobs. At the same time, people
in these once-stable blue-collar neighborhoods were also facing other
challenges, from pollution to neighborhood racial change.
Looking for solutions, some residents like Margaret
Bagby turned to new community organizations. "Why did I get involved?"
Bagby says. "Jobs were down in our community. The waste dumps were
killing us gradually. The water was polluted. We were trying to get
day-care slots for the single-female families and to reduce drug use
in the community. There were a lot of things we were trying to change."
Bagby was on the board of the Developing Communities
Project (DCP), a community-organizing venture focused on Chicago's South
Side African-American neighborhoods. It was an offshoot of the Calumet
Community Religious Conference (CCRC), an organization based in religious
congregations seeking to save jobs and communities in the region. In
1985, Bagby served on a committee to interview organizer candidates,
and one of them - one they hired - stood out as "awesome."
He was a recent graduate of Columbia University with an unusual name:
Now, as he campaigns for the Democratic presidential
nomination, Barack Obama is drawing on his community-organizing experience,
comparing his candidacy to a grass-roots project and frequently referring
to lessons he learned as an organizer.
"He's given community organizing a good name,"
remarks Jackie Kendall, executive director of the Midwest
Academy, a Chicago-based organizer training center. "My mother
will know what I do now after all these years."
But while Obama's national prominence may draw
unprecedented media focus to community organizing, his personal journey-particularly
his shift to electoral politics as his arena for action-also highlights
the limits of at least one model of traditional community organizing
in achieving its goals.
Like many of his colleagues in the field, Obama
grew frustrated with the incapacity of neighborhood-based organizations
to challenge the powerful political and economic forces that shaped
the lives of local residents. Nevertheless, even when he turned to elective
office as a more powerful vantage point from which to pursue the objectives
that had drawn him to organizing, he continued to work with grass-roots
groups and the larger networks they have formed to increase their clout.
When Obama ran for his first elected post in the
Illinois state Senate, he laid out a vision of the politician as political
organizer, an expression of his hope in a political "third way."
He saw it as an alternative to what he viewed as false polarities-the
civil-rights movement's integrationist goals versus black nationalism,
and the antagonisms between community organizing and traditional politics.
"What if a politician were to see his job
as that of an organizer," he told reporter Hank De Zutter in a
1995 article in the Chicago Reader, "as part teacher and
part advocate, one who does not sell voters short but who educates them
about the real choices before them? As an elected public official, for
instance, I could bring church and community leaders together easier
than I could as a community organizer or lawyer. We would come together
to form concrete economic development strategies, take advantage of
existing laws and structures, and create bridges and bonds within all
sectors of the community. We must form grassroots structures that would
hold me and other elected officials more accountable for their actions."
As a politician, he has not always fulfilled those lofty ideals, but
they still animate his presidential campaign.
One thing is clear about Obama: No matter what
he learned on the streets of South Chicago, in the classrooms of Harvard
Law School, in the church he joined or in the gritty politics of the
Illinois Senate, he had the air of a "natural." When Kendall
first met Obama shortly after he came to Chicago, she recalls telling
her husband, "I just met somebody we're going to say we knew him
when. He just had some quality about him, something special. I can count
the number of times I've said that on one hand. It was just a presence
and self-assurance about him at such a young age."
And after Obama became DCP's director, Bagby recalls,
"I said, 'What am I doing following this young boy?' But he was
just so knowledgeable, and he knew just how to get you to do what you
needed to do, and he knew what we needed to do. I never knew anybody
who could lead somebody without them knowing he was leading."
But even a natural needs some training and practice.
Gerald Kellman, who first recruited Obama, taught him the basics, and
he also learned from organizing trainers associated with the Gamaliel
Foundation and the Industrial
Areas Foundation (IAF). Both organize community groups, primarily
religious congregations, and trace their lineage to Saul Alinsky.
Alinsky, the patron saint of contemporary community
organizing, started working in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, next
to the Chicago Stockyards. In 1941 he established the IAF, envisioning
his neighborhood work as a complement to industrial union organizing.
Neighborhood churches were important institutions
in Alinsky's strategy and became even more critical to the work of his
heir at the IAF, Ed Chambers. Alinsky and his disciples wanted to help
ordinary citizens create powerful local organizations that could demand
change from politicians and corporate executives. They focused on developing
relationships among community leaders, such as pastors or lay leaders
of congregations, who could mobilize other people through their institutional
Gregory Galluzzo, a Gamaliel founder, was one of
Obama's teachers. "I tell people I'm a mentor," Galluzzo says,
"but an organizer is like a musician. A musician has to play music.
Somebody listens and points a few things out. But nobody teaches a jazz
musician jazz. This man was gifted. An older musician would know if
a young musician was practicing, and Barack was always practicing."
Practicing involved one-on-one meetings with potential
leaders-listening to them and developing relationships, then getting
those leaders to mobilize other people for "actions." Alinsky
often favored flamboyant, theatrical confrontations, but the typical
action for contemporary faith-based community groups like Gamaliel is
a large meeting where community leaders present their case for change,
then demand a commitment of concrete support from some official.
According to other organizers and community leaders
who worked with him, Obama insisted on democratic process and resisted
exaggeration of successes. And he followed the organizers' credo: Be
accountable to others and demand accountability from leaders in return.
He pushed the local leaders into the limelight, they say, keeping himself
in the background.
Loretta Augustine-Herron, a part-time teacher who
was a DCP leader, recalled one such occasion, a meeting with a city
employment and training official. Augustine-Herron was supposed to be
the group leader for the meeting. "This lady came in and was very
aggressive and domineering," she says. "I was supposed to
introduce the issue, and she tried to take over. She said, 'You don't
even know what we do.' From the back of the room, Barack shouted, 'We
want to hear about the issue. We want to hear what Loretta has to say.'
Then the whole group picked up the chant, and she backed down."
While he often stayed in the background, Obama
was anything but passive, according to his former fellow organizers.
Galluzzo recalls Obama's efforts to organize residents of Altgeld Gardens,
a Far South Side public-housing development, to demand removal of asbestos
from their apartments. The night before a trip to meet with Chicago
Housing Authority officials a big crowd turned out, but the next morning
few people showed up for the trek to the CHA office. So Obama began
dragging people out of the projects into the van.
"People the night before promised to take
a stand," Galluzzo says. "But the people in public housing,
they didn't show up after they said they would. The organization's reputation
was on the line. Barack was on the line. And Barack filled that van.
We had our action. An organizer is one who says, 'Damn it, I'll make
it happen.' People don't just rise up."
Obama was also empathetic, even with his antagonists.
In his autobiography, Dreams from My Father, he recounts that
during the Altgeld asbestos campaign, he felt anguish for an official
who was on the verge of attempting a cover-up that would backfire on
Fellow-organizer Mike Kruglik recalls Obama's approach
with panhandlers. "Instead of giving 50 cents and walking down
the street, he'd engage a person and invest some emotion in that person,"
Kruglik says. "I remember him saying, 'That could easily be me.
There's not that much that separates that kind of person from me.' There
was some relationship between his capacity to empathize and his determination
to do the job, the possibility starting to gel in his mind that he could
create this organization of African-Americans that would be very powerful."
Obama's attempt to create a community organization
was also part of a personal quest for a community of identity and a
political community. As he recounts in his autobiography, he struggled
as a young man with questions of who he was and where he fit in to American
"Some things in Dreams from My Father
where he talks about community foreshadow the politics he seems to be
trying to build now in this campaign," Kruglik says. "We say
communities are groups of folks whose destinies are bound together and
feel that. Barack was trying to enter into such a community, to create
a political community of people who feel their destinies are bound together
and decide collectively to shape that future."
It wasn't always easy. Obama tried to reach out
to black Protestant churches, but they were suspicious of the Catholic
churches that were CCRC's original base and financial support. Some
black leaders were uncomfortable with the white organizers, which is
one reason Obama was hired. There were social tensions within the black
community between housing-project residents and their middle-income
neighbors. Moreover, many residents were skeptical about the value of
community organizing. Traditionalists clung to the old Democratic machine
habits of patronage and inside connections. And at the time Obama joined
CCRC, most black Chicagoans were looking to Mayor Harold Washington,
the city's dynamic, progressive black mayor, to empower them.
The Rev. Alvin Love, now DCP's president, was just
starting his ministry and wondering how to get his parishioners more
involved in the neighborhood when young Barack Obama knocked on his
door. Love agreed to Obama's request that he attend a meeting with other
clergy, Protestant and Catholic, to lay out their concerns and seek
"At the time most of the ministers were white,
the Developing Communities Project mostly Catholic," Love says.
"Barack said we have to get all stakeholders involved, so he came
to the Protestant churches, mostly with African-American pastors. Race?
It really wasn't a problem once we put our issues on the table and we
saw we were all dealing with the same things. The issues were the same
for all of us. I think that probably was the greatest accomplishment.
We won some things, but the lasting importance is that he brought us
together in a culturally divided community."
Obama succeeded, says veteran organizer Kellman,
because "he identified a larger range of leaders and built a network
They trusted him because he was a good listener, and you build relationships
when you're a good listener."
After Obama had been on the job for about a year,
Gamaliel's leaders wanted him to move his organizing work to Gary, Ind.,
where they saw better prospects. "His take on that was that we
had to stay there [on Chicago's South Side]," recalls Kellman.
"My take was that it wasn't going to happen. We wouldn't be able
to accomplish all that much. It wasn't the most difficult time, but
it was difficult. We never intended to have only a black organization."
But DCP leaders wanted an organization that was
identifiably African-American. Obama felt loyalty to the people in the
Chicago neighborhoods where he had been working at a time when he was
also consolidating his own identity as African-American.
"This was the first time that Barack had lived
in a major African-American community, except at Columbia," Kellman
says. "It wasn't just that he identified with the black community,
but he found a home. He was rootless. He put down roots. He could not
have done his political career without that. He became comfortable with
who he was, not that he became comfortable 'being black,' but with the
complexities of it all."
Obama stayed on with DCP for two more years, winning
small improvements in job training, education and the environment. While
an article in the Los Angeles Times portrayed him as exaggerating
his importance as an organizer, Obama is very frank about his limited
organizing successes in his autobiography.
After he left DCP for Harvard Law School, Obama
retained ties to the community. "He was the first black head of
the Harvard Law Review, but he came back and did training for
us, and if we had a big action, he was there," Augustine-Herron
says. "Even when he graduated, he still worked with the organization.
That's commitment most people don't have. When they're climbing the
ladder, they don't look back. He looked back."
But Obama was also looking forward. He often chafed
at the inability of community organizing to tackle the big issues of
power and injustice. "Ah, yes. Real change. It had seemed
like such an attainable goal back in college
," he wrote.
"Only now, after a year of organizing, nothing seemed simple. Who
was responsible for a place like Altgeld? I found myself asking. There
were no cigar-chomping crackers like Bull Connor out there, no club-wielding
Pinkerton thugs." A small neighborhood group, he concluded, cannot
easily confront the people with the greatest control over their lives.
Kruglik says Obama went to law school largely because
"he wanted to understand how power operates at a more powerful
level, how money is moved and invested, how major financial decisions
are made, and how that affects what happens to people in communities."
Yet Obama talked about returning to Chicago to form a much larger, faith-based
network of community organizations. The Alinsky model of institution-based
organizing continued to appeal to him more than alternatives, such as
the direct organizing of poor people by groups like ACORN
(Association of Communities Organized for Reform Now), which often is
involved in electoral politics.
But when he returned to Chicago after getting his
law degree, Obama began pulling together different threads of his experience
to create an alternative model for action. He led a successful voter-registration
campaign. He considered running for mayor. Then in 1996 he ran for state
Senate, playing political hardball to get the nomination yet running
a grassroots campaign to win.
As De Zutter wrote about Obama at that time, "He
doesn't just want to create and support progressive programs; he wants
to mobilize the people to create their own. He wants to stand politics
on its head, empowering citizens by bringing together the churches and
businesses and banks, scornful grandmothers and angry young. Mostly
he's running to fill a political and moral vacuum," left by orators
who stir up fervor in the black community, then offer no program for
As a state senator, Obama worked closely with broad
multi-ethnic coalitions and downstate rural, white legislators. He moved
smoothly from South Side basketball courts to the classes he taught
at the University of Chicago law school or the wealthy downtown foundations
he advised. Kruglik recalls how excited Obama was at a big suburban
job-training rally that brought together a disparate crowd of more than
2,000 people-blacks, Latinos and blue-collar whites.
Obama believed that "even if the black community
organized itself, it wouldn't be able to win economic solutions just
within its own community," according to Kruglik. "He had a
more complex politics than being torn between the two [black community
organizing and a broad coalition]. I was impressed with how determined
he was that the South Side piece be so authentic, that black leaders
run it. He said something like, 'I'm from the black community but not
limited by it.' "
And as much as Obama decided that he could do more
as a legislator, he continued to embrace community organizing. In the
Alinsky tradition, community groups typically don't get involved in
electoral politics, and most traditional politicians do not want citizen
groups that hold them accountable or do more than turn out votes (and
money) for their re-election. Obama rejected that dichotomy, not only
encouraging and meeting with community groups but working closely with
them to win legislation.
He collaborated with United
Power for Action and Justice (UPAJ), a metropolitan Chicago faith-based
organization formed in 1997 by the IAF, to expand children's health
insurance in Illinois. For its part, UPAJ gave Obama a prominent platform
to address its multiracial, metropolitan membership during his 2004
bid for the U.S. Senate. William McNary, co-director of Citizen
Action/Illinois, a coalition of labor, community and citizen groups,
says, "Barack was not just willing to meet with community-based
groups, not only to be a good vote for us, but he also strategized with
us to help move our position forward."
Obama is not the first prominent progressive politician
to come from the ranks of organizers and to maintain a close relationship
with citizen groups. The late Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, even
more energetically than Obama, encouraged citizen and community organizing
while he was in office. (Obama both praised Wellstone as "magnificent"
and dismissed him as a "gadfly" in an interview in The
Nation.) Other former organizers-such as Rep. Jan Schakowsky from
one of Chicago's North Side and suburban congressional districts-also
work with and help to build community groups. And in Chicago, Mayor
Washington relied on community groups from black, white and Latino neighborhoods
for his path-breaking campaign, then integrated them into his policy
work in office, especially on economic development.
In recent years, many legislators have responded
to pressure from unions to be more than a reliable vote and to take
a stand in tough organizing campaigns. Obama did so recently on behalf
of Chicago workers trying to organize at the Resurrection Hospital chain.
And former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards-one of Obama's rivals for
the Democratic presidential nomination-has frequently and vigorously
supported labor campaigns. In many cases, community groups like ACORN
work closely with labor unions and support organizing campaigns. These
relationships point to the possibility of progressive candidates developing
much closer partnerships with a wide range of grass-roots organizing
groups for their mutual benefit.
Nevertheless, tensions between groups doing grass-roots
organizing and politicians may be inevitable. Even the Gamaliel Foundation's
Galluzzo complains that Obama hasn't been as forceful an advocate for
comprehensive immigration reform as the group would like. But such tensions
can be productive. Community groups can hold politicians accountable,
but they can also give politicians leverage in negotiations when they
can point to masses of people demanding action. Ultimately, even as
they work together, community groups and sympathetic politicians must
recognize the autonomy of their partners.
Both community organizing and progressive electoral
politics could be much more effective if both strategies were more deeply
intertwined than they are now. Community groups need to support progressive
candidates more forcefully in election campaigns, even as they retain
the freedom to criticize candidates they've supported. Progressive politicians
need to recognize that they are more likely to win election and be able
to mobilize public support for their legislation if they foster organizing
of citizen groups, even if that means those same groups will often demand
more than the politician deems practical.
As a young man, Obama learned the limitations of
community organizing, but he never lost sight of the power of mobilized
citizens. He's brought that vision to his run for president, seeking
to inspire a grass-roots movement that will put him in the White House.
At the same time, it will be interesting to see if he also remembers
how, as an organizer, he warned community residents not to put their
faith in one person to solve their problems and urged them to press
their demands forcefully on officials who try to evade an issue.
Even Obama's admirers worry that membership in
the Washington power elite and the pressures of a presidential campaign
will divert him from his ideal of the politician as organizer of citizen
empowerment. But if rhetoric is a measure of intentions, they have reason
for optimism. In a recent fundraising letter referring to his organizing
days and urging supporters to host a "Community Kickoff" event
to build a movement for "hope, action, change," Obama wrote,
"Together we have an incredible opportunity to bring politics back
to our neighborhoods and communities, where people genuinely care about
our common future and believe that we have the power to shape the kind
of society in which we live."
David Moberg is a senior editor of In These Times who writes
frequently about both politics and organizing for many publications.