Friday, September 05, 2008

All Those Community Organizers? Who Needs Them!

Rudy Guiliani’s and Sarah Palin’s nationally televised F.U. to the millions of Americans who work tirelessly to make a difference in their local communities has understandably outraged many.

Catholic Democrats, for instance, are calling on their members to “tell the McCain campaign and Sarah Palin to apologize for mocking Catholic community organizing.”

In a recent e-mail the group states:

Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin showed the contempt that she and the campaign of John McCain have for Catholics and the working poor when she sarcastically mocked Senator Barack Obama’s experience as a community organizer in Catholic parishes on the South Side of Chicago. In her vice-presidential acceptance speech, Ms. Palin said: “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities.”

Before Palin’s speech at the Republican National Convention on Wednesday night, former New York Mayor Rudolf Guiliani took to the stage and, when comparing Barack Obama to John McCain, laughingly mused: “Community organizing. What?”

I guess someone needs to inform the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that community organizing involves no responsibilities and can be dismissed with a guffaw. Yet as Mother Jones magazine points out:

In guffawing at Obama’s work, the GOP was mocking the efforts of an important group: the Catholic Church. Obama’s community work was part of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, a project sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Campaign for Human Development has been the church’s main anti-poverty and social justice program in America since 1969. Do Palin, Giuliani and all those GOP delegates really believe that bishops’ effort to improve the lot of the poor and jobless is a laughing matter?

And, of course, it’s not just the efforts of the bishops but countless numbers of religious and lay people who work in city neighborhoods and rural communities across the country. And why do they do this? Because as the group Catholic Democrats reminds us: “Community organizing is at the heart of Catholic Social Teaching to end poverty and promote social justice, and it has resulted in hundreds of thousands of people receiving assistance around the loss of jobs and housing over nearly 40 years.”

Not surprisingly, with all this in mind . . . “It is shocking that a vice-presidential candidate would disparage an essential component of the Catholic Social Tradition with her condescending attack on urban community organizing,” says Dr. Patrick Whelan, president of Catholic Democrats. “Her divisive rhetoric, repeatedly pitting small towns against urban communities, demonstrates not only a lack of charity toward the needs of some of the least among us but a fundamental disrespect for those who dedicate their lives to overcoming poverty across our country. Her sarcastic tone is also emblematic of the contempt that she and Senator McCain have shown toward actually addressing the economic distress that is gripping America in these difficult times. Economic issues, including extreme poverty, are among the most important to Catholics and other people of faith in this election.”

“Why do Governor Palin and the McCain Campaign sarcastically attack efforts to organize unemployed Catholics and Protestants? asks Lisa Schare, chair of Catholic Democrats of Ohio. Senator Obama has spoken warmly about his experiences as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. His work in helping people who were experiencing the real trauma of losing their jobs and livelihoods demonstrates an authentic Christian spirit and the real essence of Catholic Social Teaching, something strikingly absent from Governor Palin’s remarks.”

In response to these same disparaging remarks, community organizer Yossef Ben-Meir notes that:

Community organizers help local groups develop action plans and implement local development. Community organizers do not decide for others what their most pressing needs are, but rather facilitate dialogue as people together assess their challenges and opportunities and create socio-economic projects they want. Community organizers are negotiators, conflict managers, and help build mutually beneficial and peaceful relationships.

Sounds like pretty responsible work to me.

Meanwhile in St. Paul, where Palin and Guiliani made their remarks at the RNC, Elana Wolowitz of Wellstone Action issued a statement on “the responsibilities of a community organizer,” part of which reads:

Being an organizer means putting the needs of the community above yourself and your ego. Your task is to influence the powerful with little more than the common will, and do so while developing the leadership of those around you. A good organizer is always working to put themselves out of a job, because many others should be prepared to step up and take their place. You listen and learn, coordinate and plan, arrive early and stay late, and do the real work that improves people’s lives.

It’s easy to laugh at something unfamiliar, or mock something you don’t understand. But community organizers have been the ones that moved our country forward during times of crisis and great change. They are ordinary people working to improve their communities - that doesn’t sound very elitist, does it?

And finally there’s the following response to Alaskan governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s dissing of community organizers:

Perhaps it’s time for everyone to take a deep breath!

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Sarah Palin’s “Theocratic Fascist” Affiliations
Progressives and Obama (Part 1)
Progressives and Obama (Part 2)


Anonymous said...

I am sorry the IAF crowd has its undies in a bunch over this, but here is the difference between community organization and elected office:

* a poor community organizer loses the confidence of the community they seek to serve. With nothing to show for their organizational efforts, or poor results from those efforts, a community loses its voice in the political process, and the organizer loses his or her job.

* if an elected official, like a mayor of a small town, does a poor job of providing basic services to an entire community - which includes everyone, those who voted for the mayor and those who voted against the mayor - then the whole community suffers. If the garbage is not picked up, if the fire department doesn't answer calls, if there's not a cop when you need one, if the pot holes aren't filled, if there are no teachers in the schools, if the heat or lights or water is not working, then everyone rightfully gets upset, regardless of their politics. And then the mayor is either recalled and thrown out of office, or fails to be re-elected at the next election.

So yes, while we need community organizers to bring representation - and needed services - to under-served *parts* of the community, its elected officials that have to deliver. Similar, but not the same. My limited involvement in IAF activities on California's Central Coast taught me that it's not a hammer for every nail.

And, to finish, I would love to see, say, the Green's elected as a majority on a city council or a county board of supervisors. Nothing clears the mind faster of ideology than actually being responsible for providing basic services - and paying the price when the electorate doesn't get what it pays taxes for.

Anonymous said...

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Mark,

I don't think people are saying there isn't a difference between community organizers and elected officials.

What they're pissed off about, and I think rightly so, is the demeaning and dismissive way in which both Guiliani and Palin referred to the important work of community organizing - work that clearly involves dedication and responsibility.

Personally, I found Palin's sarcastic tone a total turn-off, though, without doubt, many find her blunt and honest style to be refreshing, even enjoyable to listen to.

Yet this style is, for the moment, eclipsing her record and the fact that she's a far-right ideologue.

My hope is that in the next few weeks the things that Palin believes in and hopes to advance will be the things that the American people will focus upon and decide against.



Donna said...

I detect racism, as well as ignorance, in Sarah Palin's trashing of community organizers. Most community organizers work in inner city areas with people of color.

Palin and her brand of politics are not what this country needs.

Liam said...

I find it dreadfully hysterical that those Catholics who so often invoke the Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity against governmental involvement (where they think private charity should suffice) have the chutzpah to denigrate community organizers.

There is a long tradition of venom against community organizers in the American South, where white paternalism refused to confront the reality that it had deluded itself about how much "our colored folk" actually supported that paternalism.