“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.
“Militancy the Mark of Merit”
The concept of community organizing has been around since the 19th century. In their history, Community Organizing for Social Change (Greenwood, 1981), authors Robert Fisher and Peter Romanofsky point out that social work and organizing citizens who live close to one another for local improvement were mutually inclusive.
This began to change during the Great Depression, as national organizations started to spring up advocating local community action to deal with the economic downturn that wracked the nation. Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker newspaper, is often hailed by today’s community organizers as a heroine for her work in establishing shelters and farms to care for the poor when government was unresponsive.
But Saul Alinsky is considered the pivotal figure in the creation of modern community organizing—and, in fact, the person credited for coining the phrase “community organizing” to replace the previous characterization of it as “social agitation.” A University of Chicago graduate, Alinsky began honing his organizational skills with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). With colleague Edward Chambers in 1940, he co-founded the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) that has trained generations of community organizers.
In his books Reveille for Radicals (1946) and Rules for Radicals (1971), Alinsky spells out the tactics of militancy and confrontation that would typify the controversial side of community organizing in the latter part of the 20th century. “A People’s Organization is a conflict group,” Alinsky wrote in Reveille. “Its sole reason in coming into being is to wage war against all evils which cause suffering and unhappiness. A People’s Organization is the banding together of large numbers of men and women to fight for those rights which insure a decent way of life.”
Akin to a call to arms, Alinsky would go on to write that a “People’s Organization,” as he characterizes a group leading a local community, “is dedicated to an eternal war. It is a war against poverty, misery, delinquency, disease, injustice, hopelessness, despair, and unhappiness.”
The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan was no fan of community organizers. In his 1970 book on anti-poverty programs, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, the future senator characterized community organizers: “With militancy the mark of merit and increasingly measured in terms of the ability to be sufficiently outrageous to obtain press and television coverage—or so one is forced to conclude from the behavior of those involved.…”
Moynihan, who served from 1977 to 2001 as a Democratic U.S. senator representing New York, went on to describe a 1966 meeting between the Citizens Crusade Against Poverty and R. Sargent Shriver, then head of the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity, where he served as overseer of federal anti-poverty efforts. Far from receiving support, wrote Moynihan, Shriver “was hooted, booed, jostled, and verbally attacked…. ‘He hasn’t done anything for us,’ cried one delegate, ‘Where do the poor have an opportunity?’”
No one has ever found evidence that Barack Obama or any of the rising political stars discussed in this article ever engaged in that kind of behavior. But Moynihan’s account serves as an explanation as to why, almost to a person, community organizing as a career attracts those from the left of the political spectrum.
Patrick Gaspard: Wired to Labor, Democrats, Obama
If any former community organizer best illustrates the solid connection between his profession, organized labor, and the Democratic Party, it is Patrick Gaspard. At 46, following stints as political director in the Obama White House and executive director of the Democratic National Committee, Gaspard was nominated to be U.S. ambassador to South Africa on the eve of the president’s trip there in June.
As a community organizer in his early 20s, Gaspard worked primarily on reform issues in the New York City public school system and organized demonstrations for “social justice” in Haiti. The son of Haitian immigrants, he was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Gaspard came to Brooklyn with his family when he was three years old.
At first glance, his political resume reads like that of many other campaign operatives. After getting his start as a volunteer on Jesse Jackson’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988, the American Spectator noted, Gaspard “volunteered for the David Dinkins mayoral campaign in New York City. In 2003 he became acting field director for Howard Dean’s presidential bid. He was national field director in 2004 for America Coming Together, a now-defunct get-out-the-vote operation that received a $775,000 fine for campaign finance abuses.”
But Gaspard’s current political muscle is best illustrated by the high-level roles he has played at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), the nation’s largest coalition of community-based organizations advocating for social change. At its peak, ACORN claimed 500,000 members across the country.
Gaspard’s background as an organizer brought him to the attention in 1999 of Dennis Rivera, president of SEIU Local 1199, reported to be the largest union local in America. Rivera asked Gaspard, then chief of staff to Democratic City Councilwoman Margarita Lopez, to organize the local’s “March for Justice” against alleged police brutality in New York. Gaspard put together several such marches and in 2003 became executive vice president for political and legislative affairs at Local 1199.
Three years later, he became political director of New York ACORN and, according to lobbying registration papers filed in 2007, Gaspard worked on the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP) cherished by organized labor.
Before his time with SEIU, however, Gaspard had served for two years as political director for Bertha Lewis, then head of ACORN’s large New York chapter and later the boss of ACORN’s national operations. Wade Rathke, founder of ACORN, wrote in his blog during Gaspard’s time in the White House:
“Tell me that 1199’s former political director, Patrick Gaspard (who was ACORN New York’s political director before that) didn’t reach out from the White House and help make that happen, and I’ll tell you to take some remedial classes in ‘politics 101.’”
The ties between ACORN and SEIU are tight-knit and many. Writing in the American Spectator, Matthew Vadum of Capital Research Center explained, “SEIU Locals 100 and 880 are part of the ACORN network of organizations. Local 100 in New Orleans is headed by Rathke. SEIU Local 880 in Chicago is headed by longtime ACORN insider Keith Kelleher.”
Gaspard also did work for New York’s Working Families Party (WFP), one of the small parties in New York State that can cross-endorse major party candidates. In both 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama had the WFP ballot line in the Empire State. New York political pundits consider the WFP a wholly-owned subsidiary of ACORN, and in fact the two shared office space.
The nation’s two most influential former community organizers, Obama and Gaspard, began their association under little-known circumstances in 1995. Clearly disappointed with the centrist turn the Democratic Party had taken under Bill Clinton, the two were active in a new socialist-leaning coalition known as the New Party. Based on the leftist coalitions in Scandinavia, the New Party was not a third party but a movement that endorsed and worked for decidedly leftist candidates in Democratic primaries. Among its leaders were author Noam Chomsky, anti-nuclear activist Randall Forsberg, and ACORN’s Wade Rathke. Gaspard was a New Jersey organizer for the New Party and, in his first race for office, Obama had the New Party’s blessing in his bid for an Illinois senate seat. (The New Party folded in 1998.)
As Obama’s political director in the 2008 campaign, Gaspard’s organizing skills were applied successfully. In Ohio and Pennsylvania, key states that Republican John McCain’s campaign wanted to contest, a large turnout among blue-collar and lower-income voters gave Democrat Obama hefty margins of victory.
Gaspard’s recent tapping for the ambassadorship to South Africa is considered by many a detour from his life’s work in politics. He is on just about everyone’s short list to be a future Democratic National Committee chairman. It would surprise no one who watches national politics to find the longtime Obama loyalist managing a presidential campaign in 2016—perhaps that of Vice President Joe Biden or New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, if either of them makes the race.
One thing about Gaspard can already be said: like Barack Obama, he is a former community organizer of major consequence.
An Insider on Immigration
While Barack Obama and Patrick Gaspard left the community organizing of the streets for the wheeling and dealing of political meeting rooms, Deepak Bhargava remains the community organizer he has been since graduating summa cum laude from Harvard.
Born in Bangalore, India, and raised in New York City, Bhargava has come a long way from his start at ACORN. Following a stint at ACORN as legislative director, he began a career at the Center for Community Change (CCC), first as public policy director and for the past 11 years as executive director of CCC. In its own words, CCC is “a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to develop the power and capacity of low-income people, especially low-income people of color, to change the policies and institutions that affect their lives.”
Much of Bhargava’s focus at CCC has been on immigration reform. He created the Center’s Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM), “a leading grassroots network pressing for changes in the country’s immigration laws” (according to Bhargava’s official biography) and its Community Voting Project, designed to motivate lower income voters to become politically active.
The strong impact and political reach of CCC and Bhargava on immigration policy has been widely reported. Last year, the Washington Post cited Bhargava as one of those who convinced President Obama to ease up on the deportation of illegal immigrants—something the administration likes to point to when critics say it is soft on the issue of illegal immigration. Bhargava particularly praised the president’s 2012 decision to suspend deportation of “DREAMers,” the young people who come to the U.S. as children of illegal immigrants and then are raised and go to school here.
CCC is also well-heeled. Major left-wing philanthropies give it big money. Among them are the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation ($18,627,700 since 1999); Ford Foundation ($11,012,500 since 1999); George Soros’s Open Society Institute ($7,944,500 since 1999); Marguerite Casey Foundation ($7,640,000 since 2003); Soros’s Foundation to Promote Open Society ($5,030,000 since 2009); Tides Foundation ($4,169,690 since 1999); Carnegie Corp. of New York ($2,676,000 since 2004); Rockefeller Foundation ($2,540,000 since 2000); John S. and James L. Knight Foundation ($2,250,000 since 2004); W.K. Kellogg Foundation ($1,865,201 since 2000); and Women Donors Network ($1 million since 2005). Carnegie has hailed the organization for its history of “forging partnerships between immigrant communities and African-American, faith-based, low-income white, unions, and other groups.”
As identified as he is with the cause of illegal immigrants and boosting immigration levels, Bhargava has never forgotten his roots as a community organizer. One of the projects spawned under his aegis is Generation Change, a program that “recruits, trains and places the next generation of community organizers.”
CCC has political clout in no small measure because of its leader and his connections. Deepak Bhargava, to use a slang phrase common in Washington, is “wired.” He serves on the advisory board of left-of-center paymaster George Soros’s Open Society Institute and on the editorial board of The Nation, America’s most durable publication of the Left. Bhargava also has written for the Washington Post, The Nation, and American Prospect, and appeared on such television forums as C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.”
Bhargava is one former community organizer who has embraced the controversial issue of immigration reform and meshed both political skills and community organizing successfully. Whatever one’s views of Bhargava and the causes he has embraced, it seems a safe bet to say he will be heard from for a long time to come.
Will Tomorrow’s Reuther Come from Restaurant Ranks?
“All right, let’s all say the name together. Saru Jayaraman. SA-RU! JA-YA-RA-MAN!!”
That is how the moderator of the opening panel of the Labor Research and Action Center at Georgetown University introduced the first speaker on June 18. As hard as the name of Saru Jayaraman might be pronounce, the co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) actually needed little introduction to the overflow audience of up-and-coming union organizers and historians. (ROC was profiled in the August 2013 Organization Trends.)
Prior to Jayaraman’s remarks at Georgetown, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka spoke at the same forum. After apologizing “if I butchered your name,” Trumka spoke proudly of his organization’s “partnership agreement” with ROC and said of Jayaraman: “She’s a real pioneer.”
At 38, Jayaraman (or just “Saru,” as everyone was calling her) is almost universally cited as the likeliest labor titan of tomorrow. Much like the young Walter Reuther of United Auto Workers in the 1930s or the first James Hoffa of the Teamsters in the 1940s, she is drawing nationwide attention while the workers she speaks for are still in a growing stage. Like both Reuther and Hoffa, her workers have had their share of public confrontation—albeit not in the form of the sometimes-violent clashes between management and labor so common in the early 20th century. Thanks to social media, “flash mobs” are the fashionable way to protest in the early 21st century.
The magnetic Saru’s background is unusual for someone who is such a popular fixture at union conferences: a summa cum laude graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles, she holds a law degree from Yale University and is also a graduate of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. ROC, the group she co-founded and now co-directs, is not a union but a “not-for-profit worker center.”
The genesis of ROC is dramatic. After 9/11, in addition to those who perished, more than 250 workers at the “Windows of the World” restaurant in the World Trade Center lost their jobs.
Although it is often reported that ROC was started “with the help” of the union HERE (Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International) Local 100, the organization was actually conceived by HERE. As Dan La Botz pointed out in Dollars and Sense magazine (January/February 2004), HERE Local 100 asked immigration attorney Saru Jayaraman and Windows waiter Fekkak Mamdouh to launch the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, or ROC-NY, as a permanent workers’ center. Jayaraman and Mamdouh quickly expanded its scope beyond simply helping workers affected by 9/11.
“Twelve years later,” Jayaraman recalled to the Labor Action audience at Georgetown, “ROC has grown to more than 10,000 workers [nationwide] and has 100 employee partners.” ROC is a presence in at least 25 major cities. “This is largely due to the demands of the largest and fastest-growing sector, restaurant workers,” and she quickly added, “due to the incredible power of ‘the other NRA’—the National Restaurant Association, which Jayaraman dubs “the tenth most powerful lobby in America.”
What began as ROC-NY and evolved into ROC represents the modern merger of labor unions and community organizing. It is based, as Don La Botz wrote, “on the idea that services like job-search assistance, classes, and legal advocacy help to attract and hold workers, while drawing them into organizing … the mix of projects encourages cross-ties among workers, as a single member may be involved with multiple projects and campaigns.”
In pursuit of what its co-founder calls “workplace justice,” ROC has been behind lawsuits against major restaurants and “celebrity” chefs. The results have been very profitable for the restaurant employees as well as ROC itself, which receives a percentage of the eventual settlement. The tenth and most recent “workplace justice” campaigns launched by ROC of New York began in 2010 with a lawsuit against DelPosto Restaurant, which is owned by chef Mario Batali, characterized by Jayaraman as “the best-known chef in the U.S.” After two years, the employees (who were members of ROC-NY) reached an agreement with DePost over their claims of lost minimum wages, overtime, and tip misappropriation. In addition, the suit included Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charges of racism and national origin discrimination. Jayaraman specifically referred to an “abrasive and racist chef” who worked for Batali.
After two years of steadfastly denying all allegations, DelPosto finally reached a settlement of $1.5 million with 31 employees in 2012. “And Chef Batali has now joined us,” Jayaraman told her audience at Georgetown. (Nearly all of the ROC-generated suits against major chefs have been settled out of court with no comment from the defendant and thus an end to embarrassing publicity.
ROC engages in political activity, with its members receiving one hour in weekly training in “political education” and this includes educating workers “to help them mobilize for issues such as the Iraq War and the Israeli Palestinian conflict.” (The SAMAR Collective, “The Organizer’s Corner,” Sept. 3, 2004.) The group’s confrontation with the National Restaurant Association is usually in the form of “flash mobs” outside conventions and other major meetings. These tactics have led to the NRA taking out two full-page ads in major newspapers to respond to attacks from the group.
“They see us as a threat,” says Jayaraman, who finds it “exciting to be attacked” by the NRA. In her remarks at Georgetown, as in other fora, the ROC leader has singled out an opposition group known as ROC Exposed as a creature of the NRA; a spokesman for ROC Exposed told us that the group is “separate from and independent of the NRA. ROC Exposed is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization, a coalition of restaurant workers, owners, and others concerned about ROC’s attacks on America’s restaurants.”
The left-wing philanthropic establishment has heavily invested in ROC and its affiliated organizations. Institutional donors include Tides Foundation ($58,630 since 2009), Tides Center ($25,000 since 2009), Woods Fund of Chicago ($115,000 since 2009), Robin Hood Foundation ($379,021 since 2008), Ford Foundation ($1,450,000 since 2008), W.K. Kellogg Foundation ($967,500 since 2004), Rockefeller Foundation ($285,000 since 2004), Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors Inc. ($90,000 since 2006), Rockefeller Brothers Fund Inc. ($50,000 since 2011), Robert Wood Johnson Foundation ($300,000 to ROC-New York City since 2007), Surdna Foundation ($185,000 since 2010), Nathan Cummings Foundation ($150,000 since 2005), Local Initiatives Support Corp. ($45,000 since 2011), Discount Foundation ($85,000 since 2005), Oxfam-America Inc. ($40,000 since 2010), New York Foundation ($195,550 since 2004).
But the up-and-coming organizer is receiving criticism on other fronts. Last year, House Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R.-Cal.) launched a probe of ROC and wrote to then-Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, citing what he called ROC’s “history of intimidation towards opponents and management problems.”
Another moment that has caused discomfort for ROC is the lawsuit against the group after it helped establish COLORS, a New York-based worker-owned restaurant. In 2007, the worker-owners sued ROC for not paying them what they considered fair wages and requiring them to attend protests and lobby for causes unrelated to their work, such as opposing the Iraq War. The protesting workers were fired by Jayaraman and, while all the claims in the suit (Godoy v. Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York) were dismissed in court in 2009, the dismissal came on technical grounds. The court found that the “workers” were not “employees” under the Federal Labor Standards Act but actually workers who were “promised ownership” of the restaurant.
Most embarrassing of all to ROC in this entire legal dust-up has been the source of the suit. Former employees of Windows of the World, the restaurant that “started it all” for ROC, had actually joined in the lawsuit against it. After much reporting that would give one the impression that employees of COLORS alone were suing Jayaraman and Company, the New York Times issued a correction that pointed out:
“Among the plaintiffs are former employees of Windows on the World, the World Trade Center restaurant destroyed on 9/11; they are not all former employees of Colors, a restaurant created after 9/11 by other former employees of Windows on the World. Of the eight plaintiffs, four—not all—say they are former employees of Windows; the rest are former employees of other restaurants that closed after 9/11.” (Aug. 4, 2007).
But it does not seem to have slowed down Saru Jayaraman. She has appeared on national television forums hosted by Bill Moyers and Bill Maher and been named one of the “Forty Under Forty” leaders for tomorrow by the prestigious Crain’s business publication. Earlier this year, a book on ROC was published and will reportedly be made into a film.
For a community organizer billed as a labor titan of tomorrow, it doesn’t get any better than that.
Politics, Labor, Community Organizing—Alliance for Tomorrow?
In Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote how UAW president Walter Reuther “by 1965, was more and more attracted by the possibility of organizing ‘community unions,’ freeing the labor movement from the confines of workplace and craft, ‘providing the poor with their own self-sufficient economic organization in their community.’”
More than a generation later, community organizers have gone far beyond Reuther’s vision. Saru Jayaraman presides over a group that, controversies notwithstanding, seems to be the perfect merger of organized labor and community organizing. Deepak Bhargava has emerged as a potent force not only for immigrants—legal and otherwise—but for their eventual joining of the labor force and political ranks. Patrick Gaspard is a powerhouse within Democratic politics.
There are others in the realm of community organizing who are clearly in ascendancy. Brandon Abdullah Powell runs Elementz, a hip-hop center in Cincinnati which uses the power of hip-hop culture to “inspire youths to become leaders.” Oakland, California attorney Zachary Norris, a former Soros Justice Fellow and a graduate of the labor-backed National School for Strategy Organizing, is co-director of Justice for Families, California’s first statewide network for families of incarcerated youth. The campaign contributed to efforts to close five youth prisons in the state.
Given the success of the “Big Three”—Jayaraman, Bhargava, and Gaspard—it seems that the impact of former community organizers will be heard and felt for years to come.
John Gizzi is Newsmax’s chief political columnist and White House correspondent.