Vilifying the Volunteers

Gustav_volunteers I agree with Jim Wallis on this one -- not on this one (what he says in the first paragraph about a double standard) -- but yes, on this one. So shoot me. I'll even wear Bullwinkle antlers.

Wednesday morning I got an e-mail from a former member of our Sojourners community. Perry Perkins is now a community organizer in Louisiana with affiliates of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). "Perk," as we used to call him, reported on the enormous consequences of 2 million people being evacuated because of Hurricane Gustav, much of the state now being without power, how hard cities like Baton Rouge were hit, the tens of thousands of people in shelters and churches, and the continuing problems caused by heavy rains and flooding. Then he talked about how their community organizers were responding to all of this -- responding to hundreds of service calls, assisting local officials in evacuation plans, aiding evacuees without transportation, coordinating shelters and opening new ones, providing food, essential services, and financial aid to those in most need. Since Katrina, Perry's Louisiana interfaith organizations have played a lead role in securing millions of dollars to help thousands of families return to New Orleans and rebuild their homes and their lives.

Then Wednesday night I heard Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin say that her experience as "a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities." The convention crowd in St. Paul thought that was very funny. But it wasn't. It was actually quite insulting to the army of community organizers who work in the most challenging places across the country and have such a tremendous impact on the everyday lives of millions of people. I guess Palin and her fellow Republican delegates don't know much about that. The "actual responsibilities" of community organizers literally provide the practical support, collective strength, and hope for a better future that low-income families need to survive.

Community organizers are now most focused in the faith community, working with tens of thousands of pastors and laypeople in thousands of congregations around the country. Faith-based organizing is the critical factor in many low-income communities in the country's poorest urban and rural areas, and church leaders are often the biggest supporters of community organizers. And many of them felt deeply offended by Palin's remarks. Here are a few of their responses:


Hmm...not real clear on how realizing you're part of a system that doesn't work gives you valuable presidential experience. It sounds like it took him a few years to really come to grips with the fact that things weren't working out, which, come to think of it, sounds a bit like the Bush administration's gradual realization that things weren't working awhile ago and they needed a change of direction in their Iraq policy. Ha! Bet that's not a comparison you hear every day. Remember you saw it here first! ;)
Gina, Thanks for the TNR link. It was a good read and it's refreshing to see in-depth investigative reporting like that. It would be great to see background reports written by the right-wing press. Could you see running a report like that on McCain or Palin? I don't agree that the TNR story wasn't positive. It showed that Barack was in the trenches where he learned that selfless community organizing doesn't work if there is no leadership and more importantly, no financing. It explained a good deal about Obama's motivations and why he wanted to work from the outside (the political system) and also why he will be so effective as President. He really does have "boots on the ground" experience.
Watch the tone, please, M. A. Another remark like that and you're on warning.
Wah Wah Wah I have worked a lot of volunteer projects and if you don't know the difference between professional responsibility and volunteer work, I can only say that I would never want to hire you.
My biggest beef was not about knocking Obama, but as Wallis notes, knocking community organizers. It was a poor choice of words, to say the very least, for cheap laughs. And many people, justifiably, didn't appreciate it.
Thanks, Gina. That was quite interesting reading. It would seem that what he was attempting to accomplish may have been quite valuable, but...well, Palin's "actual responsibilities" line pretty much stands up against the nature of his role there.
His actions as 'community organizer' were more as a political agitator, everything from the kind of voter registration that ACORN does (such as more than 70,000 fake registrations in one local already this year) to getting the right people to the polls who will vote the right way and so on. The person who slashed the tires on the busses the last major election, in one city, so that the GOP couldn't take the elderly to vote, was probably this sort of community organizer. I am NOT saying that BHO did any of those specifics, I've only heard rumors on those accounts. But Alinskyian political agitation is very different from civil defense operations such as were being described for Louisiana (where by the accounts of the evening news, two counties remain without power - blizzards in the upper midwest do more damage and leave more people without power in worse situations. Doesn't get much notice though. But it is a different culture.
As it happens, "The New Republic" has a new article up about Sen. Obama's community organizing experience. To tell you the truth, it's not what I expected from TNR. They're a liberal magazine, and I thought they would show it as a positive thing, but they don't exactly. But at any rate, it's all I've run across so far, so here you go. If anyone else finds more articles on the subject, it would be great if you could post them here so we can get more views from all sides.
Actually Paul is more like a community organizer. Jesus was more like a mendicant friar. And Pilate was more like a colonial governor-general then a state governor.
Yes, I've heard that that line was being popularized by the Daily Kos, that bastion of Christianity. :-)
CLH, Thanks for this reasoned post. I had the same questions you had when I heard Sarah Palin's "read-meat" remark. Aren't Centurions trained to be community organizers? I guess the "good" community organizers need to suck it up and toughen up. If they take the remark too personally, they will become "collateral damage" in this urgent political war and we wouldn't want that. Next, you'll see this slogan on bumper stickers and t-shirts. "Jesus was a community organizer and Pontius Pilot was a governor"
The problem I have with the whole "community organizer" bit is that it's so nebulous. It could be an honest, hardworking leader of community volunteers and activists to effect change where it's needed and even provide the manpower sometimes to do what needs to be done, or it could just be a common rabble rouser getting disaffected people all worked up and vocal about their problems. I just don't know, because in Obama's case I haven't really seen any detail behind the "community organizer" title. Regardless, on the plus we can presume for the moment you've got the ability to work to make change happen. On the negative side, you're not the one in the position to make tough decisions and be responsible for the outcome. It's one thing to say you were able to rally people together to show city government what the needs are, and that's quite valuable. But it's not quite the same as saying you were the one who made the decision to pursue a given worthy program even though you knew you would have to increase the tax revenue to pay for it (or cancel another program, or sell bonds and go into more debt, or...) and you knew that people were going to be pretty upset about it. I'm not trying to cancel out whatever his achievements were in that role, it's just that I haven't seen enough information to know if it's really pertinent to his experience or not.
Obama wasn't the sort of community organizer PF relies on, that's for sure. It's my understanding that it differs significantly from being a volunteer or relief worker, and more like an organizer of radical political activities.
Yeah, community organizers do great work. But does it qualify them to be President? (And, frankly, I think Obama was more an agitator than an organizer.)

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