A Bad Rap for Community Organizers from those Who Should Know Better

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Experts in community organizing around the nation responded in high dudgeon to the disparaging comments of Rudy Giuliani, Sarah Palin, and George Pataki at the Republican National Convention. They felt that community organizing had been “mocked” (Peter Dreier and John Atlas in the Huffington Post, as well as David Plouffe on behalf of the Obama campaign itself), “ridiculed” (Dreier and Atlas), “demeaned” (Deepak Bhargava of the Center for Community Change), “disparaged”, “marginalized”, and “condescended to” (from a statement attributed to board chair Maude Hurd in an ACORN press release), “belittled” (a New York City organizer quoted in the New York Sun), and “trashed” (Atlas on the National Housing Institute’s Rooflines blog).

To us, it appeared to be a mark of distinction: community organizing’s day has come. A former community organizer is running for president of the United States, and his opponents felt the need to score some points by deriding the organizing practice and profession. Take it as an achievement: national politicians felt that they had to attack community organizing, because community organizing is an increasingly powerful tool in communities fighting for social, economic, and racial and ethnic equity.

Particularly exciting were the attacks by former mayor Giuliani and former governor Pataki. Pataki asked, “What in God’s name is a community organizer? I don’t even know if that’s a job.” On the “Hannity and Colmes” show on Fox News, Giuliani jibed, “Exactly what does a community organizer do?”

Both Pataki and Giuliani — as frequent targets of effective community organizing—know quite well what community organizers do. They’ve had plenty of opportunity to become personally acquainted with the work of the New York Immigration Coalition, Jobs with Justice, the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, Chinese Staff and Workers Association, Neighbors Helping Neighbors, the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, El Puente, the Red Hook Initiative, and dozens, perhaps hundreds more. Their smiles when trying to score a humorous point about Obama as a community organizer might have been masking the pain they felt from remembering when they had to accede to community mobilizations and public policy advocacy as a result of effective organizing.

The responses to Giuliani, Pataki, and Palin were wrapped in motherhood, apple pie, and the American flag, equating PTAs and their bake sales as avatars of community organizing. In reality, Giuliani and Pataki for sure—and maybe Palin too, probably were aware of the impressive grassroots organizing of Alaskan environmental activists against coal-fired power plants—know exactly what they face with a presidential candidate who honed his professional skills and identity as a community organizer. They know all too well.

See the Republican National Convention attacks for what they really are – a recognition that community organization is powerful and, when done right, a challenge to the entrenched power of politicians and their corporate allies.