Community Organizers in Charge: Three who pack a political punch
By John Gizzi, Organization Trends, September 2013 (PDF here)
Summary: “Community organizer” is a term few Americans had heard until one was elected president in 2008. Now it’s a badge of honor and a passport to the highest levels of political power. We profile three of the most significant examples of the breed.
Community organizer? Ever heard that term before?
A credential increasingly found in up-and-coming leaders in government and the younger leadership of the labor movement is a background in community organizing. The former top political adviser to the president, a man touted increasingly as the premier voice for immigrants, and the founder of a fledgling league of restaurant workers who is tapped as the future superstar of organized labor—all spent their formative years in jobs mobilizing small communities into action.
The reason for the rise to political clout of former community organizers (not to mention the growing interest in them) can be summarized in two words: Barack Obama.
As the first president who actually held a job bringing together citizens of a local community to advance their common interests (as defined by the far Left), Barack Obama put the position of “community organizer” on the map.
Fresh out of Columbia University in 1983 and unhappy with his first job as a financial planner in Manhattan, the young Obama moved to Chicago and went to work on behalf of the residents of the Altgeld Gardens public housing project. Frequently billed as “the man who gave Obama his start,” veteran Chicago community organizer Jerry Kellman hired the future president at an annual salary of $10,000 and threw in another $2,000 for Obama to buy a used car.
From there, Obama went to work agitating among the 5,300 mostly black and lower-income residents of Altgeld Gardens, and seeking solutions to the perceived problems in their community. These included, according to Kenneth Walsh of U.S. News and World Report, “a nearby landfill, a putrid sewage treatment plant, and a pervasive feeling that the white establishment of Chicago would never give them a fair shake.”
As his wife, Michelle, would recall years later to Walsh, “His work as a community organizer was really a defining moment in his life, not just his career,” because it helped Obama decide “how he would impact the world.” A better public service announcement for a starting career as a community organizer could not be scripted.
Obama is not, of course, the first community organizer to have gone far, and he won’t be the last. But because of an early career that is unique among presidents, there is considerable interest in other leaders of today who began as organizers of local citizens and their concerns.