For Release Sunday, September 30, 2012
© 2012 Washington Post Writers Group
Gamaliel claims its grassroots operations has been so effective it’s convinced governments to channel more than $16.6 billion into transit, infrastructure development and education.
A newly released report: says the result has been to alleviate poverty and create or save no fewer than 639,385 jobs over five years.
But wait a moment. Community organizers? Aren’t they the folks sneeringly scorned by such figures as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, and used as foils to attack President Obama for his early career as a community organizer in Chicago?
Well, yes. And the right-wing blogosphere is reveling in attacks on them. Take this recent posting by a Teri O’Brien (self-proclaimed “America’s Original Conservative Warrior Princess”):
“A ‘community organizer’ is a person who arrives in a poor neighborhood to stoke the fires of entitlement, resentment and class envy, usually to enhance his own political fortunes, while leaving the poor people he claims to care about worse off than when he got there.” Her prime example: Barack Obama, “a dyed-in-the-wool radical leftist.”
Let’s hope that when the smoke clears from this year’s election, reality will return, and that America’s rich history of organizing for poor and disadvantaged people and communities is recognized for the value it returns, fiscal and moral.
Organizing’s 20th-century founding figure was Saul Alinsky, a sharp-witted nonconformist who first made his mark organizing workers in the famous Chicago stockyards in the 1930s, working to correct severe problems of poverty, decrepit housing and juvenile delinquency.
Alinsky persuaded workers of a rainbow of ethnicities – Poles, Lithuanians, Slovaks, Bohemians and others – to unify in demands for better pay. His “Back of the Yards Council” – and later Industrial Areas Foundation – worked closely with Catholic dioceses and parishes and a host of other allies to press for living wages, employment counseling, infant care clinics, control of street gangs and more.
With colorful tactics Alinsky demanded, and won, the attention of political and corporate powerbrokers, spreading the community organizing model across a broad swath of the nation. He died in 1972, but his followers later reached a new level of success by persuading Congress to put strict curbs on “redlining” – bankers’ vicious practice of denying mortgages in inner-city neighborhoods.
This was the purportedly dangerous “community organizing,” Alinsky-style, that attracted a youthful Barack Obama. But Americans’ organizing for social change has deep roots. Thousands protested slavery in the run-up to the Civil War. As author/analyst Peter Dreier recalls, suffragists chained themselves to the fence outside the White House to popularize their cause in the early 1900s. College students traveled to the South to wage sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in the early 1960s. Anti-war activists protested the Vietnam war by disrupting military induction centers and defense contractors. Environmentalists fought nuclear power plants, even going into the field to block construction.
Most recently, the Occupy movement focused attention on the immense economic disparities in today’s America. More than 15 percent of Americans now live in poverty, and many more are perilously close. Real wages for 80 percent of the workforce have stagnated, as income for the very rich has skyrocketed. Millions have lost their homes to foreclosures. Predatory lending robs vast numbers of what meager pay they earn.
But is the Gamaliel network credible when it claims big budget and job gains for America’s less privileged? True, public expenditures were key to its victories. But in the process, the group organized to win a St. Louis-area referendum to expand the local transit system, making more jobs accessible for non-drivers. It organized 125 people to march in the snow to the Buffalo (N.Y.) County Executive’s office to reverse cuts in day care that were threatening to force many to quit jobs or go on welfare. It’s been a partner of self-help campaigns across the country.
In a notable Missouri victory, Gamaliel joined the St. Louis Regional Commerce and Growth Association to press the state Legislature to approve tax credits for rehabilitation of historic buildings. The downtown had been in dire straits; the credits proved critical in channeling hundreds of millions of dollars of private investment into downtown redevelopment that drew young professionals, reversed the rapid flight of wealth to the suburbs and provided jobs for low-income city residents.
Metropolitan Congregations United (MCU) in St. Louis also influenced a major national transportation bill to aid low-income workers. Collaborating with then-Sen. Christopher Bond and then-Sen. Barack Obama, it was able to have language inserted in a national transportation act to urge state departments of transportation to use more equitable hiring practices to benefit local communities.
David Rusk, a civic analyst, activist and former Albuquerque mayor, says Gamaliel is on target pressing government to hear poor peoples’ causes. Government policy, he notes, sets the rules of the economic game. If you include the poor, he suggests, eventually everyone benefits.
The bottom line is clear: Community organizing is not some radical diversion, but rather a bedrock of successful American democracy. It’s patriotism with substance. A successful 21st century America will need more – not less – of it.
Neal Peirce’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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