Thursday, September 04, 2008

In Defense of Community Organizers and the People They Work With

“I guess a small-town mayor is sort like a community organizer except that you have actual responsibilities.” That line got a big laugh and cheer from the delegates at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul this week. At the same time it betrayed an attitude of neglect that has characterized this presidential election campaign on both sides of the aisle.

For Gov. Palin’s information, community organizers are people who take on the responsibility of helping people who have no power or voice in this society, not only to get heard, but also to secure rights and opportunities that are denied them because they are poor. This summer I had the opportunity to attend the annual gathering of the National Organizers Alliance, a network of community organizers. These folks were working in a variety fields: immigration reform, voter registration, environmental protection, civil rights, labor, and anti-racism. Like social workers, childcare workers, inner city school teachers, youth workers, and millions of community and church volunteers, community organizers are committed to securing dignity and rights to the people who are often neglected, forgotten, and, even worse, abused by the U.S. economic and political system. As my wife, a social worker who serves people with HIV/AIDS, says: “We work with the folks that the rest of the society would rather not deal with.”

However, in addition to insulting a whole group of dedicated folks whose contributions are already devalued by this society, Gov. Palin’s statement raises a deeper concern about this election; and in this regard Sen. Obama is equally at fault. While there has been a lot of talk about the “middle class” and the “working class” by the candidates, no one has talked seriously about the growing extent of poverty in this nation. The only candidate to focus on the needs of the poor was John Edwards in the Democratic primary race. Other than that the poor have largely been ignored.

In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama talked about the mortgage crisis, rising oil prices, jobs being shipped overseas, lowering taxes and the like – issues that impact the middle class. As a person with a “middle class” income, I resonate with those issues. I have not been able to do all I wanted to do, because costs have gone up. I am fortunate to have a secure mortgage, decent health coverage and a good credit rating, but I wouldn’t mind a little more. But the discomfort I experience is nothing compared to those who were suffering before the mortgage crisis hit, because they either didn’t have a permanent home, or because they struggled to pay the monthly rent. The discomfort I experience is nothing to the family that has no health care, and limited transportation, and whose schools are overcrowded, undersupplied, and physically decrepit. Senator Obama has talked about growing up with a single mom on a limited income, but has not fully addressed the complex burdens faced by the poor in this society today. He knows about it not only from his childhood, but also from his days as a community organizer. He tells the stories of people he knew in Southside Chicago in his memoir Dreams of My Father.

So, Obama knows about poverty, but for political reasons he has chosen not to talk about it; poverty, like racism, is not an issue Americans want to be reminded of. Gov. Palin, and the Republicans take the neglect even further, and ridicule those who make it their business to work side by side with those who are marginalized, dispossessed and abused by our system.

However, let me be clear: the issue is not about charity. Republicans are as generous and concerned about the “downtrodden” as anyone else. The issue is not about charity, but rather about social justice. John Rawls, Harvard philosopher who wrote A Theory of Justice, said that a society is judged on how it responds to the needs of the most vulnerable in that society. Justice is about making sure that people have their basic needs met, and that the doors of opportunity are equally open to all. Justice isn’t about giveaways; rather it’s about creating an economic, educational, and political system that gives every person a voice regardless of their station in life. In short social justice suggests that one’s ideas, rather than one’s access to power thru lobbyists and financial contributions, guide the decisions leaders make. In short, social justice is actually practicing the democracy we profess to have in this society

Almost all political speakers end their speeches with some variant of “God Bless America.” Jesus said that the way one responds to the needs of the poor, naked, imprisoned and weak is equivalent to the way one responds to him, and by extension to God (Matthew 25). If this nation truly wants any sense of God’s blessing, we had better open our eyes and our minds to those through whom God speaks and listens: the poor.


Anonymous said...

Is there a way you can email this to both Obama and Palin?

Anonymous said...

Hmmmm, I know it sounded clever to the ears of those who desperately needed to believe that their candidate made the right choice in Palin....but I think this comment is going to come back to haunt the GOP or at least Palin and McCain......

Who does the work in the trenches...who helps get the work done that our elected politicians are too slow, disinterested or simply too disconnected to do? Hmmmmm, so nooooooo actual responsibilities.....I don't care how much of a "reformer" Palin is....she is still a politician that is connected to a larger political system of failure. The community organizers are the true pitbulls and mavericks!!!!

The RNC's theme was loaded with "values" and reaching "middle Americans", yet how are they going to bring about restorative economic justice? Is the plan to curb "wasteful" spending and somehow use those funds to build infrastructure or add the right mix of spending that benefits those most in need? Sounds great, but "how"? What does the plan look like?

But who decides what spending is "wasteful"?

Or is the plan to simply act as magicians and deliver sensational appeals so that those under the allure of the mysticism of "values" arguments will ignore what their politician-elect is doing behind the curtain? Including calling Obama a celebrity while doing the dance of comraderie with well-known multi-million dollar CEOs. I guess Obama isn't the only one that is popular among the elites.

But on another note, our economy, which does not exist in a silo, is shaped by a variety of external forces. Our labor market is not the same. Are those industrial-era jobs coming back? Which political magician can make them re-appear? But there is talk of creating new jobs? How many and what kinds of jobs? Is everyone entitled to work? Is everyone entitled to have their worked valued at a wage that they can live on without gov't subsidy (this is the ultimate goal right--an end to the welfare state)? The argument goes on: don't tax businesses anymore because it will just make things worse for the little guy.of course taxation is not the only answer..but when is enough enough...when do you say, wait a minute...folks need decent wages so that they can survive......folks need healthcare so that they can survive.....who will bring about economic restoration.(or reformation)..?

Julia M.