Don't Dis Community Organizers

Amid all the hoopla and pressure, Sarah Palin took to the stage of the RNC convention, wowing the GOP delegates and winning over most of the media commentators. Her speech commanded that we stop viewing her as a curiosity, that we take her seriously as a politician and a leader.

And if we are to take the substance of her words seriously, then we need to point out that Palin -- echoing an attack on Barack Obama delivered a half-hour prior by Rudy Giuliani -- made one of the most absurd statements of the year.

Palin remarked, "I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities."

Now I'm all for upholding the dignity of small-town mayors and acknowledging the responsibilities they shoulder. And certainly we need to more of a town hall forum dynamic within government on a national scale if ordinary people are to have any access to counter the influence of corporate lobbyists.

But it's just wrong to dis community organizers. And why belittle community organizers when you are trying to portray yourself as an insurgent candidate seeking to overthrow the Washington elite?

So let's start with one obvious way in which community organizers make a difference. They register new voters. In 1992, a record 150,000 new voters were added to the rolls in Chicago owing in large measure to a grassroots effort led by Project Vote. A January 1993 analysis by Chicago magazine on the local director of Project Vote concluded, "A huge black turnout in November 1992 altered Chicago's electoral landscape -- and raised a new political star: a 31-year-old lawyer named Barack Obama."

In this sense, even the crassest politico understands the value of community organizers. They are indispensible to boosting voter turnout (which is why so many GOP strategists have devised counter-mechanisms to deter voting). It's hard to believe that Palin could have successfully challenged the incumbent governor of Alaska without some community organizers working on behalf of her campaign.

Still, there is a much deeper responsibility that the community organizer shoulders. I learned my most important lessons about community organizing over the past 7 years living in Detroit. From a few victories and many setbacks, from elders and youths, from veteran activists and wide-eyed students, I gained a deeper sense of what it means to survive, to struggle, and to envision a better world within what is arguably the nation's most devastated big city.

(You can get a sense of what Barack Obama learned from his community organizing work in Dreams From My Father. Judge the value of his experience for yourself and assess the degree to which his potential presidency would reflect the mentality of a grassroots activist.)

And if we are to take Sarah Palin's rhetoric seriously, then it is clear that she recognizes that the American system of representative democracy is broken. Corporate interests have taken control of Washington leaving us with too many politicians in both parties devoid of courage, accountability, or authenticity. And no single charismatic leader -- be they a P.O.W. survivor, a hockey mom, or a brother from the South Side -- can change that system by themselves.

What is required is a grassroots movement that will make Washington more accountable to participatory democracy. Community organizations inside the United States and even more so around the world are a principle vehicle to engage people in the practice of democratic action. (Author Paul Hawken has chronicled the global impact of such organizations.)

And community organizers -- paid and unpaid -- are a critical part of building such a movement. The best work among the grassroots the people, getting to know the people who make up communities and gaining intimate knowledge of their problems in ways that cannot be gleaned from the photo-op appearances by typical politicians. The best empower people to express their needs and concerns, not just as individuals but as a more powerful collective of diverse but coordinated souls. This means that community organizers must also be skilled at communication, negotiation, and compromise -- traits required of any good leader.

I can't say what possessed Palin to dis community organizers. I hope she understands that most Americans are not on a first-name basis with their mayor. I hope she understands that most Americans cannot and should not expect to get a check from their state government because corporations are making billions by extracting nonrenewable resources. I hope she understands that there are millions of Americans living in places like the South Side of Chicago, inner-city Detroit, and small towns across America whose lives and communities have been devastated by deindustrialization, environmental degradation, the war on drugs, the collapse of public school systems, and so on.

So now is our chance to see what Sarah Palin is really made of. Let's see her go to cities like Detroit and talk to people about their problems, not just the soccer/hockey mom in the suburbs but also the youth whose neighborhood school was just shut down, the mother living on a street haunted by drug dealers and gang violence, and the ex-con trying to straight but unable to secure a job. Once Palin belittles community organizers, what will she have to offer? Will she provide any new ideas or just the same old GOP talking points about how the free market gives everyone a chance to lift themselves up by their bootstraps? Or, will she, just like the politicians she claims to resent, continue to ignore the needs and concerns of the most marginalized sectors of our population?