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Issue Date:  April 4, 2008

Speech shows community organizer skills


Barack Obama began his career as a 24-year-old community organizer, working in neighborhoods one block at a time, building coalitions for change. In the most critical moment yet in his campaign for the presidency, when issues of his race and religion threatened to peel away supporters and leave the would-be unifier with a fractured shambles, Obama took to the stage in Philadelphia and set to work community organizing on the issue of race on a national scale.

Community organizing is a process, and a somewhat decentralized process at that. It isn’t accomplished immediately through one speech; it moves outward in ripples. Obama’s March 18 oratorical exercise in community organizing was subtly woven into the speech he called “A More Perfect Union.”

“You know, you throw a rock into a pond and those ripples will go out,” Obama said on ABC News’ “Nightline” afterward. “We don’t know where those ripples will go. I have no idea how this plays out politically. But I think it was important to do.”

Initial indications are that the ripples are spreading far and wide. The New York Times reported March 20 that the video of the Obama speech had been viewed “more than 1.6 million times on YouTube and is being widely e-mailed.” The paper reported that church groups and universities were using the speech to spur discussion.

Part of the appeal of the Obama campaign has been its success in adding new voices to the political mix. Beginning with the Iowa Democratic Caucuses, college-age voters found a reason to caucus. As the campaign rolled on, it became apparent that Obama was winning support from people who were not traditional party voters or who live in states the Democrats have tended to write off as less vital.

In many cases, new or newly involved voters were brought into the process by small cadres of determined young community organizers.

Another part of the appeal for Obama supporters has been the sense that they are rejecting old-form politics and making their voices heard as part of something new. Into this setting came the voice of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., Obama’s friend and former pastor, in a video-loop mash-up of his most appallingly divisive moments in the pulpit of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ.

In a speech that sought to uplift the discussion of race, rather than tamp it down, Obama took steps to move supporters past the jarring dissonance of Wright’s resentful words. In effect, he opened a virtual roundtable on race.

The first step of a roundtable is the same step the Obama organizers employed to start their work with the precinct captains. Everybody in the circle takes turns telling their own personal stories of “why they are here.” In this national roundtable, Obama went first.

Certainly, he took the time in his multipronged address to condemn Wright’s distortions of reality and to place the minister’s anger and suspicion of white America in historical context. But Obama also had this to say: Pastor Wright, the black community, and Obama’s own white grandmother, flawed though each may be, are all part of why Obama is here. “These people are a part of me,” he said. “And they are part of America, this country that I love.”

Speaking first to the black community and then to the white community, he laid out three more steps toward a more perfect union that people can take after hearing one another’s stories.

Number one, he said, we have to acknowledge the reality of everybody else’s history and how it has brought them here. After acknowledging the historic differences, we can explore current similarities and form a bond -- actively binding our common hopes together and taking common action on them. And finally, we can adjust our thinking about the future to make room for one another, rather than behaving as though one race can win only if the other one loses.

What works to organize a room full of volunteers, or a neighborhood in trouble, however, may not do much of anything when lofted out over the public airways. But then again, it might. In the immediate aftermath, the video of Obama’s big speech was followed on his Web site by e-mails from supporters who wanted to tell their own stories. As community organizers know, that’s where the process starts.

Mary Barron is a freelance writer from Colorado who is covering the Democratic Party for NCR during this year’s presidential race.

National Catholic Reporter, April 4, 2008

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