DMI Blog

Mark Winston Griffith

Dissing Community Organizing is Bad Political Theater

As someone who worked as a community organizer over a period of years, I was taken aback to hear the disparagement of community organizing at the Republican convention on Wednesday night. First, Rudy Giuliani mockingly concluded that Barack Obama's community organizing experience was the "first problem on the resume". Then vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin compared herself to Barack Obama by smirking that "I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a 'community organizer,' except that you have actual responsibilities."

Let's extend Guiliani and Palin the benefit of the doubt, and assume that the target of their ridicule was really their Democratic party opponent, not the community organizing profession. And let's assume the intended audience members were the party faithful who have grown weary of Obama's lionization in the press. But at a time when both parties have trumpeted "reform" and "change", stressed public service, and are claiming to represent everyday folk, Guiliani and Palin instead risked leaving the impression among television viewers that they were appealing to a smug gathering of people intent on defending their entrenched power. It didn't help that 93% of the RNC delegation were white and 68% were men.

Of course, delegates at both political parties represent, to a large extent, the nation's political elite. Furthermore, conventions are little more than political theater. But what about how this plays to many of the independent voters that both parties are so desperately competing for? In their wholesale dismissal of Barack Obama's community organizing experience, Wednesday's convention speakers and attendies unwittingly left the impression that they had little regard for the legitimacy of ordinary people coming together to improve their neighborhood, school, workplace or living conditions.

Perhaps, the problem is that people just don't know what community organizing means. Former Governor George Pataki recently quipped that Obama "was a community organizer. What in God's name is a community organizer? I don't even know if that's a job."

As a matter of fact, for thousands of people across the country, community organizing is very much a job, and a thankless, low- or no-paying one at that. There are plenty of prominent examples of social movements that were built on the backs of community organizers, like the civil rights and labor movements, but most community organizing occurs below the radar screen of history and the mainstream media.

As I write this, someone is circulating a petition among her fellow tenants to fight a slumlord and address code violations in their apartment building, or exhorting his neighbors to clean up drug infestation and crime on their block. The community organization I founded in the nineties fought bank discrimination and predatory lending, brought thousands of low and moderate income people together to start a financial cooperative, and helped poor immigrant micro-entrepreneurs build their own vendor market.

In most instances, organizers are going up against immense obstacles such as multi-national corporations, intractable politicians, government bureaucracy and even their own community's indifference. As a result, community organizers lose far more than they win, and often work long hours under demoralizing conditions. In a community organizing voter registration job I had in North Carolina, I slept on a kitchen floor and received a sub-minimum wage.

In the same way that Democrats grudgingly acknowledge Senator McCain's military service to his country, Republicans would be better served by recognizing the public service of the many brave men and women involved in community organizing as well.

(Gentle readers: My apologies. The interview with Bertha Lewis will appear in NEXT Friday's blog. Thanks for your patience. - MWG)

Mark Winston Griffith: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 8:00 AM, Sep 05, 2008 in Politics
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