Jesus was a community organizer; Pontius Pilate was a governor. Surprise, surprise-the Republican pit bulls and swift-boaters, Palin and Giuliani, are dissing and ridiculing Barack Obama’s three years as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago.
Not surprised? Community organizers, union organizers, civil rights organizers and all kinds of other organizers who are on the side of low-income, middle-income and people of color can expect to be attacked by those whose power is being challenged.
As a “lifer” in the trenches of community organizing, 13 years in New York state and 31 years with South Austin Coalition on Chicago’s West Side, I understand the community organizer’s job to be uniting the community, developing local leaders, and building and maintaining an organization powerful enough to change policies and laws and win improvements for the neighborhood and its people.
Over the years, we have protested against government and the corporate world, Republicans and Democrats alike, to get to the bargaining table to negotiate victories and work together for the benefit of Austin. Those victories include new housing, additional funds for utility assistance, community reinvestment by local banks, and a successful class action lawsuit on behalf of 148 ripped off homeowners.
Self-help, citizen action and social networking should appeal to Republicans as well as Democrats. Progressive Republicans like HUD Secretary Jack Kemp and Illinois Governor Jim Thompson were partners in some of our most successful campaigns.
Perhaps the greatest value of community organizations is their role as the canary in the coal mine and as first responders to emerging trends and crises. Gale Cincotta and Shel Trapp of the old Organization for a Better Austin led the national campaign that countered “redlining” by banks and the creation of the Community Reinvestment Act that required banks to lend to the residents in their service areas. It was also community organizations that for the last eight years raised the issues of predatory lending, the sub-prime crisis and the mess at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to a laissez-faire federal government dead-set against any regulation. And where were the community organizations when Katrina hit New Orleans?
Throughout the world, non-government organizations (NGOs) are doing the community service work that the private sector and the public sector aren’t. Some of the reforms and structures from the War on Poverty still exist, but others are in for deep cuts. The infrastructure of community action agencies dots the landscape of small town and suburban America, providing services and programs for the poor. But there are deep cuts proposed for the Peace Corps and other community service programs.
And yes, Rudy and Sarah, most community organizers in low-income areas do believe in income redistribution. How else would our country reduce and eliminate poverty? Tax cuts for the rich didn’t work in the trickle-down Reagan administration. And yes, we believe that market forces need to be regulated by a competent government and not a bunch of political hacks.
The community organizer from the South Side of Chicago-who says he learned more as a community organizer than at Harvard Law School-gets it! He understands that grassroots people must participate in their community and be listened to by their government whereas John McCain admits he’s not very good on the economy.
Let’s rededicate ourselves to the issues facing our communities and nation. Public service subsidized work programs like the CETA program of 1976-82. Affordable utilities. Equal funding for education. Foreclosure prevention. Universal affordable health care. Energy independence and affordability. Getting out of Iraq. And community safety!
Organize and fight back with SACCC!
Bob Vondrasek is the executive director of the South Austin Coalition Community Council (SACCC).