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Community first: Organizers explain what they do

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. 

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Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/05/2008 - 01:25 pm.

    All of the “community organizers” who were interviewed for this piece are highly motivated leftists; of course they’re not amused…their messiah was dealt a blow to his credibility.

    Did you speak to any centerist or right of center non-profits? I’m guessing not…

  2. Submitted by Patrick Donnelly on 09/05/2008 - 03:50 pm.

    Hey, it’s no surprise that Republicans don’t know a thing about community organizers. They’re not used to seeing the word “community” without “gated” in front of it.

    Out here in the real world, however, there are a heck of a lot more voters whose lives have been touched (positively) by community organizers than the parade of hedge fund managers, venture capitalists and guys with seven houses that the GOP paraded across the stage in St. Paul.

    I was impressed with Palin’s presence on stage, but the Republicans just couldn’t help themselves. They were feeling their oats and took a mean-spirited swipe at community orgainzers, thus cementing their own status as the true elitists in this race (and in this country), and in the process, handing the Democrats a cudgel that they’re already starting to use. (Obama’s campaign notes that it raised $8 million in the first 24 hours after Palin’s speech. Nice work.)

  3. Submitted by Brian Stofferahn on 09/05/2008 - 10:02 am.

    First, it was the liberals who belittled Pailn’s experience and position as a mayor, first. Perhaps you should have done a piece explaining the responsibilities of a mayor.

    Second, I help organize my neighborhood in the evenings and on weekends, in addition to my real job. No one pays me to be invlolved in my community or to help involve others. Who pays these organizers?

    Just because an organization call itself “bipartisan” doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a political agenda. Obama doesn’t appear to have had any real jobs, outside of academia and politics. I believe a mayor of a small town can relate better to to lives of ordinary citizens better than people in these sheltered positions. Mayors would be less likely to look down on those bitter little people in the flyover zone who cling to religion and their second amendment rights.

  4. Submitted by scott anderson on 09/05/2008 - 10:04 am.

    But you’re missing the whole point: Palin did not take pot-shots at community organizers–not their values they nor the good work they do. She didn’t pit ‘urban’ against ‘rural’ (as if rural communities don’t also have community organizers!).

    Her comments were a rebuttal directed toward Obama–going after the fact that is was he who first politicized and touted his own service as a Community Organizer as sole rationale for being ‘the experienced’ candidate.

    That viewers were ‘insulted’ and ‘very angry’ by this is unfortunate. It seems to reveal an emotional prejudice against Palin as a person rather than a thoughtful critiquing of what she actually said.

  5. Submitted by Lyn Crosby on 09/05/2008 - 12:36 pm.

    Hey, Brian – how do you define a “real” job??? (As you use it to dis Obama.) And what is YOUR “real job”?

  6. Submitted by Jane Prince on 09/05/2008 - 12:38 pm.

    I was especially surprised to hear the RNC delegates demean community organizers, because what was Jesus, if not a community organizer.

    Jesus took it upon himself to build an organization (of disciples) to help him reach out to help people improve their lives. He didn’t do it for the money, he worked long hours at great personal sacrifice, and arguably, facilitated lasting change for the greater good.

  7. Submitted by Robert Albee on 09/05/2008 - 01:00 pm.

    In celebration of Sara Palin’s remarks, I made up some nice cards to send out to people. Using an image borrowed from an online source of a famous person on horseback, the card reads: Paul Revere was America’s best-known community organizer. Remind Sarah Palin that it is a worthwhile tradition!

  8. Submitted by Erik Ostrom on 09/05/2008 - 11:41 am.

    Yes, okay, community organizers do good things too. But do they fire librarians who refused to ban books they find objectionable? Do they hire federal lobbyists to garner earmarks for their hometowns? That’s the kind of executive experience small-town mayors like Sarah Palin have that community organizers wouldn’t even dream of.

  9. Submitted by Brian Simon on 09/05/2008 - 01:03 pm.

    brian sotffehran writes
    “Obama doesn’t appear to have had any real jobs, outside of academia and politics.”

    That’s a dangerous line of argument, if you’re a McCain-Palin supporter. The only non-government paycheck that Senator McCain has ever drawn came from his father-in-law.

    Its certainly understandable that Gov Palin would take a couple shots at her opponents – as Senator McCain noted last night, that’s the nature of the business. What Governor Palin apparently didn’t consider (or chose to ignore) was the potential for collateral damage.

    One might argue that the Obama-Biden criticisms of Gov Palin’s mayoral experience risked similar collateral damage. Though somehow I doubt most mayors of towns with 5 to 10 thousand people really consider themselves a short two years from the Vice Presidency.

  10. Submitted by scott anderson on 09/05/2008 - 01:07 pm.

    Jane – the article was not about RNC delegates ‘demeaning’ community organizers. The article was a citing of the reaction of various community organizers to Palin’s rebuttal to Obama. Palin was not demeaning community organizers either. Palin was taking it to Obama, who touted and politicized his community organizing, and a demonstration of his superior political ‘experience.’

    Your comments about Jesus may be true, but they have nothing to bear on this discussion.

    Erik – you raise a great point, namely the qualitative difference in responsibility between Community Organizers (of which there is no set job description amongst their own) and those who’ve held elected office in an executive role. While there may be points of similarity between what many CO’s and Executives do, it seems that the ability to ‘fire&fire’ and the ability to set public policy makes the jobs quite distinct. Which is why Obama’s appeal to having been a community is so weak, given the fact that he’s running for the highest elected, executive office in the land.

  11. Submitted by scott anderson on 09/05/2008 - 04:14 pm.

    Brian – (re: your last paragraph) . . . the same is true of the of all Community Organizers.

    So those who feel ‘collaterally-damaged’ (angered and insulted) by either Obama’s or Palin’s comments (which were directed toward one other and not the mayors and community organizers of America) simply prove an emotional prejudice against each candidate rather than a thoughtful contemplating of what the candidate actually said.

    Those community organizers cited above clearly demonstrate such prejudice.

    Thomas – agreed.

  12. Submitted by Alan Ingram on 09/05/2008 - 04:25 pm.

    There is so much that can be said about Governor Palin’s attack on community organizers, one does not know where to start.

    Obama will surely get lots of help responding to this attack. I’m afraid, however, that Palin’s charge resonated with her base and many other Americans who are not aware of the crucial role of organizers and activists in their communities. It’s so interesting that this role is apparently looked upon by conservatives as an avocation of elite snobs.

    None that I know of really fit that profile. Gandi, MLK, Jane Addams, Allinsky, Wellstone, on and on and on – elite snobs?

    I think Palin’s derrogation is what could be expected from right-wing conservatives, whether the ilk of George Will or the former mayor of Wallin, Alaska. They are the true elite snobs, who are out of touch with the struggles of lower and middle class Americans – who are all too often fighting the loss of their jobs and even their homes, who are without affordable health care, and will likely face retirement without adequate pensions.

    Community organizers typically have to administer their own programs, raise their own funds, manage volunteers, organize citizens to take effective political action within the law, be aware of and assess the needs and culture of their communities, develop communications that inform and persuade, plan campaigns for action, evaluate and re-plan, re-execute, re-plan, etc. No “actual responsibilities”?

    What a shamefully limited perspective for a mayor of any sized town or city in these modern times. How responsible was that?

    Alan Ingram
    Executive Director
    National Association of Social Workers, MN Chapter

  13. Submitted by Patrick Donnelly on 09/05/2008 - 07:25 pm.

    Alan — you are right, the conservatives are the true elitist snobs, whether its economic snobbery (the country-club set), religious snobbery (the evangelical Christians) or geographic snobbery (people in the Midwest LOVE to hammer on the “left-coast loonies” or the “Eastern elites” when in actuality, they are looking down their noses at anybody who doesn’t share their “Midwestern values”).

    Yes, they are the snobs, and they know it, so they attack liberals as elitist because they know it’s effective. However, I don’t think they are denigrating community organizers as elitists or snobs. This attack relates to the other flank of their war on the left — that liberals are lazy crybabies who want handouts from the government.

    Thus, community organizers are viewed as rabble-rousers advocating for the redistribution of Your Hard-Earned Tax Dollars to unworthy recipients. In their twisted world view, there’s no such thing as a voiceless population in this country (you can’t believe in somebody you don’t see or hear), and nobody is discriminated against, or if they are, it’s because they’ve done something to deserve their miserable lot in life.

    So, the people for whom community organizers are advocating should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps (like those hard-working, self-made men George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, John McCain … hey, wait a minute!), regardless of whether they even own a pair of boots.

  14. Submitted by Brian Larson on 09/06/2008 - 01:46 pm.

    Community organizer sounds alot like communist organizer for a reason. Because it fairly closely related.

  15. Submitted by Tom Poe on 09/06/2008 - 07:10 pm.

    #! Interesting claims. Obama, community organizer, civil rights lawyer, state legislator, senator, and you truly believe he had no “real job”?

    I went to my mayor, Jim Erbs, of Charles City, Iowa. I proposed a community initiative to bring broadband infrastructure to our community. It would cost the city budget zero dollars. It would create affordable broadband for our kids to access their school network and gain a true 21st century education. In response, I received a letter, indicating the city would not support such an initiative, and warned me not to do anything illegal. This letter was followed up by stating that the city contacted Qwest, and was told they would not permit any community initiative that threatened their profits. There’s at least one mayor that is willing to deprive students of their right to the best education possible. I suggest you rethink your claim to truth.

    Who are these folks in “the flyover zone who cling to religion and their second amendment rights.”?

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