September 12, 2008

Standing On The Shoulders Of (Organized) Giants

I have written before on what it means to me to be part of the nonprofit community and how excited I am to one day be a nonprofit professional, so I'll get straight to the punch:

Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani made comments last week about community organizing that offended me.

Before I go on, there's a few things you need to know:

1) In full disclosure, I am a supporter of Barack Obama. However, it is important to note that my frustration stemming from the above comments has very little to do with politics, and everything to do with the complete misrepresentation of the nonprofit sector and the work my colleagues and I engage in on a daily basis.

2) I do not think that Barack Obama is the Messiah.

3) I have no ill will towards the office of mayor. The work they do is very important and I strongly believe that local elected officials have more impact on our daily lives than those good ol' boys in the District.

4) I hold firmly to the belief that the foundations of democracy are disagreement, dissent, and discourse. Please consider this post a living and breathing dialog, not a manifesto.

Alright, down to business. In the days following Palin's comment, I posted a Facebook status that read something like, "Sam has a thought for the day: Jesus was a community organizer, Pilate was a governor." It wasn't original, but it struck a deep enough chord with me to repeat it. The status also garnered some attention - not all positive. A quick sample:
You should not compare Jesus to either [Palin or Obama]. How absurd.

Pilate washed his hands, I'm sure both candidates do that.

As a nonprofit major, I was insulted at the comments.

Wasn't [Jesus] extremely divisive? There was that whole turning father against son thing... He was a great organizer, but he may be history's greatest divider.

I changed my status after a few hours, knowing I needed to clarify my thoughts on the subject. The next day it became obvious that this clarification needed to happen quickly. Greg Patterson over at Espresso Pundit posted his thoughts on the debacle. "Those of us who consider Jesus to be the Messiah aren't pleased to see him belittled as a mere 'community organizer.'" A mere community organizer? I sent him an email as soon as I read the post. Greg said he would be stopping by to read my thoughts. Hi, Greg.

In any case, after a few days of thinking through things and a few more conversations, I decided that two main things need clarification:

1) By reprinting the statement, I was in no way trying to making a comparison of Obama and Jesus. Instead, I felt it (effectively) highlighted the importance of the work that organizers do. I, like Greg, consider Jesus (read: not Obama) to be the Messiah, and arguably the most important man in history. Where we differ, though, is that I believe that the work that Jesus and the Dozen engaged in was community organizing. I mean, JC and the Big Twelve basically wrote the book (too good to pass up) on organizing a group of people around a cause...

2) Community organizing and voluntary action are central to our nation's history. As a voter, and as a (future) nonprofit professional, I don't want someone living at 1600 Penn who doesn't get that. If you have an issue with the whole Jesus thing, fine. But what about Susan B. Anthony, MLK, Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez, or those guys who organized a group of passionate people and started our country a couple hundred years ago? Fire departments, hospitals, and financial institutions all have historically deep roots of voluntary action. The PTA, of which Governor Palin is a proud member, is a perfect example of voluntary organization. The Boy Scouts of America, one of the most tenured and respected nonprofit organizations in our country, trained and tested Senator McCain until he was worthy of the title "Eagle Scout." Both McCain and Palin are proud card-carrying members of the NRA. Wait, "members?" Like members of an organization? Weird.

The Nonprofit Quarterly printed an editoral this week highlighting their take on the whole thing, saying that Giuliani might have less than cheery thoughts on organizing because he, "[Had] plenty of opportunity to become personally acquainted with the work of the New York Immigration Coalition, Jobs With Justice, the Association of Neighborhood and Housing Development... and dozens, perhaps hundreds more [organizations]."

It's disappointing that Governor Palin doesn't realize the importance of community organizing, and that if she does add another crack to the 18 million, she's only able to touch the cieling by standing on the shoulders of giants. And last time I checked, political campaigns are run purely on voluntary action and community organizers.

When Alexis de Tocqueville came to America in the mid-nineteenth century he noted that, "The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by its private citizens." If I were to modernize his sentiment, it would read, "The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by its private citizens and the ability of its civic leaders to recognize and respect that work."

"The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults."
Alexis de Tocqueville


Nicholas said...

Hey Sam,

You know very well where I stand in my politics and we differ a lot on how we get from point A to point B, but I don't think that we differ that much on where we want this country or the world to go.

The comments made by Guilini and Palin were made to counter-attack the blows given by the other party about how a small town mayor and only 2-year Alaskan governor should be put 2nd on the ticket. Which you probably already knew this.

I don't see either of these comments by either Palin or Guilini to be derogatory towards Community service, but more as derogatory towards the idea that being a community organizer, (which may I point out a lot of people around the country don't really know what this entails), is experience enough for one to be president, based purely on the fact that he was a community organizer.

Dan Maxey said...

Well done, Sam. I think you presented this opinion very nicely. Clean, to the point, honest.

I will disagree with Nicholas. I think Palin and Giuliani meant to do much more than merely suggest that a community organizer isn't qualified to be president. You don't need to look much further than their own words to see this. In comparing the work of a mayor to a community organizer, Governor Palin identifies the key difference as being that mayors have 'actual responsibilities'. She doesn't say, "Gee whiz and gosh, that's good work, but it's just not the right kind of experience you need to be president." She demeans the work these people do by suggesting it's not real, that it's all fluff.

Rudy suggested the same with his tone. And I would infer from the looks on the faces of the Republicans in the crowd as Rudy speaks that they don't even know what a community organizer does. In fact, I'd suggest that they probably think a community organizer is best likened to the social director at their country clubs - the woman that puts the parties together and worries her days away on the finer points of place settings, centerpieces and socials.

I really don't think we can be lead to believe that this is a mere attack on Obama's resume. Perhaps that is the intent, but in the process of trying to craft a cute sound bite, the GOP has effectively insulted the work of the men and women who work with little pay and appreciation to make our country great. They don't put their life on the line in Iraq or Arghanistan and they don't captain Fortune 500 companies, but they are out there in ALL of our communities, making sure that our children, the poor, working people and even the rich can live in a country, state or community that we can be proud of - one that takes care of its people, not through government aid and oversight, but by working together to help each other out and realize our full potential.

We should be as proud of our community organizers and individuals as we are of our troops. The American flag flies for them, too. The title of Hillary Clinton's book from several years back captured the concept best: It takes a village. And at the center of the village is the community organizer - the volunteer, the caretaker. This concept is rooted in our heritage and history. If we could all let go of our individuality enough to remember that, this country would be a much better place to call home.

African Kelli said...

I think you are allowed to be offended and feel what you are feeling without requiring justification.
Palin and Guiliani are fools if they think politicing is different from community organizing. They've just organized the community in a different way.
I would feel the same if they were candidates I supported. I think they are way off base with their opinions and in truth, there is nothing slimey about community organizing. They are at a loss for ways to cut down Barry (the non-Messiah.)

Rising Up said...

"Just when I think I'm pull me back in."

I too, was deeply offended (or should I just say pissed) about Giuliani and Palin's comments regarding the importance of community organizers.

As a community organizer, my viewpoints & actions are shaped every single day by the interaction I have (the hands on interaction that is) with people. I am a strong believer in the philosophy that change happens best from the bottom-up as opposed to the top-down. What these careless speeches showed me (especially Giuliani's) was that these politicians never have interactions with "common folk."

In believing that change happens from the top-down, why would one waste their time with the actual "community." Rather, people like Rudy spend their time with rich folk (unfortunately for Rudy this philosophy proved to be detrimental to his primary season- shout out to florida).

It is this tone of speech that reminds me why I am voting for a community organizer and his running mate that takes the Amtrak home everyday...because they believe in people that may not wield the most "power," but can be mobilized to change a troubled nation.

Brandon K. Baker said...


Fantastic post. Your passion on the topic is very evident and I think you've hit the nail on the proverbial head.

While I do concede to Nicholas that Palin and Giuliani were trying to jab solely at Barack Obama and not the vast community of community organizers, they certainly did take a condescending tone and belittled these hard working people. The biggest issue for me right now is that I cannot find a single apology or clarifying remark by either politician. Neither of them has gone out of their way to reach out to community organizers and apologize for their remarks (if someone knows of such an apology please post a link). I wonder if they believe that there are very few community organizers amongst their constituents and therefore feel no need to apologize. I don't know, I'm not them.

While Obama did attack Palin's experience as a mayor, never did he actually belittle the office of mayor. In fact, he had a former mayor of Arlington, Virginia on his VP shortlist. He challenged the size of her mayoral office, not the office itself. There is a distinct difference.

Here's the meat of the issue: How can we expect ordinary people to reach out to one another in their communities if our leaders are discrediting the importance of the work? Why attack a positive aspect of society?

I wish that the GOP ticket would spend a little less time shoving aggressive animal comparisons to Palin (Pitbull with Lipstick! Sarah Barracuda!) down our throats and start talking about how they're going to attack the nation's problems.

James said...

Well said.

It is one of the sad facts of life defining the "right" thinking part of our society, that complexity is somehow a liberal program and must be rejected. Simplicity is wholesome American. Complex thinking is somehow intellectual otherness and not true American thought. Fear perpetuates this unfortunate characteristic of the American personality.

Keep up the good work.

Nole said...

Obama is bigger than The Beatles!

Anonymous said...

Very well put, Sam.

I sure hope she didn't mean to hit on the nonprofit sector. The more ironic part of this is that the Republican platform ultimately places more importance upon the private nonprofit sector to heal society's ills than the Democratic platform's reliance upon government programs.

Putting more emphasis on private charity and then putting it down just doesn't make any sense. The best one can hope is that she meant to attack Obama's record as a community organizer, not the job in and of itself, but that doesn't necessarily instill confidence.

-That pseudonymous guy in Japan

Anonymous said...

Reductio ad absurdum (Latin for "reduction to the absurd"), also known as an apagogical argument, reductio ad impossibile, or proof by contradiction, is a type of logical argument where one assumes a claim for the sake of argument and derives an absurd or ridiculous outcome, and then concludes that the original claim must have been wrong as it led to an absurd result.

This is what political discourse has been reduced to. Everyone knows you weren't trying to compare Obama to Jesus, but they take your comment to that point to make you look stupid and to discredit your argument. The spirit of the comment was apt and appropriate. You don't have to apologize for it.

My issues with social media...and i've said this that in creating communities of like-minded people, we have created bunkers behind battle lines where we can hide in our own opinions, sneaking out disguised only by our IP addresses to launch sneak attacks on our enemies, then return to the warm shelter of our friends who only nod in agreement. It's an issue that i think we're only just barely starting to see the consequences of.

Anonymous said...

For the record, community organizers and mayors are vital to the complex design and realities of our democracy...attacks and counterattacks hinder the prosperity of our nation that is full of diverse and necessary leaders and servants, as well as various delivery styles.
My favorite leaders are those that choose to lead through actual servant leadership where strong moral character and creativity should allow any of us to find the good (at least intentions) of another and respect them for contributing to the quality of life for those they serve.

Brandon K. Baker said...


Jon Stewart finally got around to this story last night...