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GOP joke, but an all-American job

Vaguely titled community organizers have deep roots in democracy.

September 18, 2008|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

DETROIT — The elementary school moms didn't ask a lot of questions about this man Bill. They were too eager to tell him -- to tell anybody -- about the loose and snarling pit bulls, the gun-toting gangsters, and the dogcatchers and police who always seemed to come too late.

The principal, Helena Lazo, had introduced him simply: "Bill nos va a ayudar." Bill is going to help us.

When Bill O'Brien faced the five women at Roberto Clemente Learning Academy, he encouraged them to enumerate the problems plaguing their Southwest Detroit neighborhood. He propped an elbow on a table and listened.

When they had finished, he asked, with an impish grin: "So what else do kids do after school around here, besides shoot guns and let dogs loose on you?"

O'Brien, 60, stands out in this tough industrial neighborhood of working-class blacks, Appalachian whites and Latino immigrants. He is balding and tall, with the pinkish hue of an Irishman who has spent too much time in the sun. This morning, his open-collared dress shirt was tucked into a pair of gray slacks. He looked like a priest, perhaps, or a kindly English teacher.

He has, in fact, been both of those things, but for the last 30 years O'Brien has mostly been a professional community organizer. As job titles go, he is aware it is a nebulous one: For years, he said, he struggled to explain his work to his own mother.

These days, however, it isn't just his mother who is asking. Because Barack Obama spent a few years after college as a community organizer, the nation is weighing whether this little-understood job is a suitable prelude to the presidency.

Obama, the Democratic nominee, holds up his three years of organizing on Chicago's South Side, along with his stints in the U.S. Senate and Illinois Legislature, as proof of his commitment to public service.

Republicans have taken a harsher view: At the GOP convention this month, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani drew a big laugh by simply uttering the phrase "community organizer" -- then adding, after a stand-up comedian's pause, "What?"

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the GOP vice presidential nominee and former mayor of Wasilla, said that a small-town mayor is "sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities."

Some liberals contended that the attacks carried racial undertones because Obama, like many other community organizers, worked largely with poor minorities.

The confusion over the role of community organizers may stem from the fact that, by their own admission, anyone can qualify to be one, so long as they take a lead in motivating people to bring about change. The title could apply to the leaders of the Boston Tea Party or to modern-day antiabortion protesters.

Robert Fisher, a professor of social work at the University of Connecticut, argues that organizing, with its focus on helping citizens make their voices heard, is "as American as apple pie."

But O'Brien's style of organizing, like Obama's, also belongs to a specific tradition, one closely allied with the labor movement, the civil rights struggle and Christian peace and justice movements.

Both Obama and O'Brien worked for a time for nonprofits aligned with the Gamaliel Foundation, a group inspired by the work of Saul Alinsky, who organized poor neighborhoods around the Chicago stockyards in the 1930s. This month in the National Review, writer Stanley Kurtz cited Obama's organizing work as a "connection with the world of far-Left radicalism."

O'Brien winces at the idea that his is partisan work. The problems he tries to solve, he says, are practical.

Like the problems the mothers were having on the streets around the Roberto Clemente school. Everybody was complaining at the parents' meetings, they told him, but nothing was getting done.

"OK. Let's imagine the dogcatcher or the City Council person comes to your parents' meeting," O'Brien said, leaning casually in his chair. "You could demand something of him not on the telephone but in front of 100 people."

Audrey Troyer, 43, cocked an eyebrow. "You know what they'd tell us?" she said. "That they are short-handed."

"Do you believe it?" O'Brien asked.

The group agreed there were probably enough dogcatchers but it was more likely they were in the neighborhoods that complained louder. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, O'Brien told the women. They needed to squeak.


O'Brien gently suggested the next stage of the plan: Let the moms go talk to five equally ticked-off friends and persuade them to attend a meeting the next week. There, they could plan an even bigger meeting.

And maybe they could pressure public officials to show up at that bigger meeting. Maybe the parents could force them to promise more cops, more animal control. It is a tactic common to the Alinsky organizing style, one also used by Obama: Hold a big meeting and extract public promises -- the way to organize power for people who can't afford campaign donations.

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