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Community first: Organizers explain what they do

By Michael MetzgerFriday, Sept. 5, 2008
Local community organizers take issue with Republican Sarah Palin’s dig at Democrat Barack Obama’s leadership experience. 

This statement from Sarah Palin is riling organizers: "I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a 'community organizer,' except that you have actual responsibilities."
REUTERS/Mike Segar
This statement from Sarah Palin is riling organizers: “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities.”

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin wasn’t about to take lightly the criticism of her experience as a small-town mayor. In her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, the vice-presidential nominee and professed moose hunter emptied both barrels at Democrat Barack Obama, making the case that he, not she, is the one lacking critical experience needed to lead the country.

Part of making that case was comparing and contrasting the Democratic presidential nominee’s experience in Chicago as a community organizer with her own as mayor of Wasilla, a town of about 9,000 people.

“Since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves,” Palin said to peals of laughter and protracted applause. “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities.” More laughter and another booming ovation ensued.

Not everyone was amused, however. Some community organizers in the Twin Cities who listened to Palin’s speech thought the governor made light of their work in order to score easy political points in front of a partisan audience.

Never forget
Elana Wolowitz, communications director for Wellstone Action!, is quick to point out that the nonprofit organization she works for is bipartisan. She’s just as quick to note that Palin’s “remarks were insulting and inappropriate to a field of work that is made up of people who are really sacrificing of themselves to give back to the community.”

Check out the “average day”  that Wellstone Action! describes on the group’s website as an example of what community organizers do.

“A community organizer is everything from someone who brings people to meetings …[to someone who] reaches out to a large group of people by having conversations with them either door to door or in coffee meetings or where they work or where they live,” Wolowitz said. “A community organizer then tries to harness all that information that they gather from listening to people’s stories and what they care about and what they want and what they need, then use that information to move toward change while building the leadership [skills] of others and not putting themselves first, and not taking the credit, but by giving other people opportunity to participate in helping their own community.”

Wolowitz has a fondness for the community organizer that Wellstone Action! is named for: the late Paul Wellstone of Minnesota.

“He’s often remembered as a U.S. senator, but we tend to remember more his work as a community organizer in Northfield, Minnesota, doing outreach with low-income, rural people who were facing job loss and loss of family farm income, and having to deal with energy issues when power lines were being brought through their land. So it was the nitty-gritty work of working with those people and helping them find solutions to the problems they faced.”

Empowering people
Chuck Repke, longtime executive director of the District 2 Community Council in St. Paul, said “Clearly [Palin] doesn’t have much understanding of what community organizers do in a larger city.”

The District 2 Community Council facilitates communication between 10 neighborhoods in northeast St. Paul. It also offers English classes, carries out recycling efforts and crime prevention measures, and holds school supply drives, among other programs.

“The big thing of a community organizer is empowering the citizens to be able to take control of their communities, to give a voice to people who normally are voiceless, to empower those people who tend not to have much power and to facilitate the development of leadership in the community. It’s about making other people have power, not power for yourself,” Repke explained.

Michelle Martin, executive director of Minneapolis’s PEACE Foundation, says a community organizer has to be able to write a budget, understand and make organizational flow charts, maintain good relationships with government officials, secure funding, speak publicly, manage personnel and volunteers, and much more.

Palin’s remarks “reveal a lack of understanding of urban issues,” Martin said. “It was an unnecessarily divisive comment and I think it was meant to be [divisive].”

The PEACE Foundation was established five years ago by Minneapolis City Council Member Don Samuels to address “community-wide problems like endemic violence and isolated poverty.”

Martin said she comes from “a white, middle class background” and has a passionate desire to help bring “racial justice” to the North Minneapolis community the PEACE Foundation is most focused on.

Community with a capital C

Jackie Christensen, a former Greenpeace organizer who is now a Parkinson’s disease activist, said she felt “very angry” listening to Palin’s speech. “It was obvious to me that she has no idea what community organizers do, how hard they work and how committed they are.”

Christensen, who lives in Minneapolis, said “community organizers are concerned with ‘community’ with a capital C. No one’s in it for the money, obviously.”

Christensen said she has spent 20 years as an environmental activist and organizer, and the last seven years as an advocate for people with Parkinson’s to “prevent the injustice I see happening, whether it’s against the environment or against people – both of which I see as preventable. It may sound naïve, but I believe most people are good at heart and the job of a community organizer is to appeal to that good in everyone.”

Gary Bennett, a board member and past chair of the Kenwood Isles Area Association – a neighborhood group in southwest Minneapolis – said that though he had some appreciation of Palin’s remarks as political theater, he didn’t appreciate her “making light of people who do very important work.”

He thought her remarks unnecessarily pit rural areas against urban centers and portray community organizers as ineffectual do-gooders.

His own organization is made up of volunteers “who want to take the time to serve the community, specifically their neighborhood. People doing this kind of work are what creates the fabric of a community.”

Michael Metzger writes about arts and other topics for MinnPost. He can be reached at mmetzger [at] minnpost [dot] com.