12 September 2008

Community First

A week after Sarah Palin’s speech at the Republican National Convention, I’m still reeling from her verbal assault on community organizing. Her calculated, aggressive dismemberment of Barack Obama’s early career did more than call into question his qualifications for President – in one widely watched speech she spat in the face of the very people she wants to help her win in November, and in the faces of hundreds of thousands (millions perhaps?) of everyday Americans who give of their time and talents in an effort to make their cities, schools, churches and other civic organizations stronger.

Community organizing is at the heart of the American experience, and Palin’s disparagement of the effort as one that “lacks responsibilities” is a worm eating into the apple of our democratic institutions. Worse than lies, Palin’s lashing does more than distort the truth – her poisonous words erode our faith in the ability for regular Americans to effect change and improve the very organizations we depend on for faith, friendship, and family.

If you’ve ever gone from house to house in your neighborhood, gathering signatures on a petition so you can request a stop sign at an intersection where school kids cross daily, you’ve been a community organizer. Perhaps you’ve been alarmed at the number of times your local beach has been closed because of poor water quality. You and your neighbors have gone to town board meetings and asked for answers to your questions. Before you know it you’re writing emails and contacting friends and neighbors, newspapers and radio stations for long hours after your kids are asleep and in bed, working on your own time to ensure that everyone can swim at the town beach. That’s community organizing. Think, too, of the garage sales and food drives that you’ve participated in at your church. The call went out for someone to help and you raised your hand. Before you knew it you were recruiting people for various committees and spending more time on this event than you were on your own garden, which began to sprout weeds. But, the event was a huge success, and because of your efforts, your church sent $10,000 to a small church in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, and the money helped people in that community purchase food they couldn’t afford. You know what? – you were a community organizer.

Our country has stronger civic organizations than any other country in the world. Americans volunteer more and give more money to worthy causes than any other people in the world – many times over. And when a person stands in front of this entire country and lashes out at this effort as unworthy of her approval and asks to be Vice President of the United States, I ask myself – what kind of America does she envisage? How does she think she can shrink government and shift more and more responsibilities to people themselves, and the community organizations they work with, if the efforts of community organizers are so belittled?

Community organizers also address long term, deep rooted issues in neighborhoods around the country. In some places, gun violence is a real problem, and regular people from small neighborhoods gather in the meeting rooms of local churches and put their heads together to figure out how they can reduce gun violence and keep their youth in school. Community organizers help these groups of deeply concerned people into avenues that can produce results. They help set up after school programs, they organize basketball and soccer leagues, they start mentoring programs so kids have a safe place to study and ask questions. Community organizers recognize the limits of government and roll up their shirt sleeves and get to work. They don’t let inadequate funding, indifference from politicians and local government stop them; in fact, it’s these conditions that are often the breeding ground for community organizers.

I can’t think of a better beginning for a politician than community organizing. It’s out of the spotlight and unglamorous, it requires long hours and less pay, and every gain is hard won. But hopefully, those gains stick, and a small success gives people hope, skill, confidence, and the experience to fight the next fight. Community organizers know that real change is slow, that slogans don’t accomplish the task at hand, and that naysayers will forever disparage their efforts as naïve, unrealistic, or foolishly optimistic. Sarah Palin’s remarks took direct aim at more than Barack Obama – she’s hoping to strike a blow at our optimism, determination, and belief that we can improve our communities and make our country stronger.

Sarah Palin is wrong – outsider, maverick politicians don’t make things happen, community organizers do, and so do the millions of people who put in long hours improving their towns, cites, parks and schools. They put community first, and make the United States a better country because of it.


  1. That was a three-pointer, my friend! Nicely done.

  2. Mnmon sent me... and I am so grateful that she did.

    Brava - this is nothing short of OUTSTANDING.

  3. You nailed it here! Now, submit it to your local newspaper as a letter to the editor to more people can read it and start thinking. If your paper won't run it, let me know, ours prints them all!

  4. Hi Patrick! I pop in to read your blog from time to time. I love this entry! You are so RIGHT! Thanks for speaking up. Your words represent many many of us! Hello to all!


  5. You tell 'em dad!

  6. I think you're missing an important distinction that Palin probably could have made a bit more explicit... I.e., Tax-payer funded, fiefdom-seeking 'Community Organizers' vs. anyone who's ever voluntarily organized anything within a community.

    The latter, as you point out, compose a fundamental aspect of Americana. The former, on the other hand, could be seen as bureaucratic blow-hards at best. In the worst case they are propagandists who leech off the oppressive systems they perpetuate. In America, the people reserve freedom of speech and so I don't begrudge them the airing of their opinions or the promotion of their agendas. Rather, I suggest that they should get a real job so they can do so on their own dime.