Obama's Former Supervisor on Community Organizers

When Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin took the stage at the Republican National Convention Wednesday night, she took some pretty hard, but familiar, jabs at Barack Obama, for instance, calling him "a man who has authored two memoirs but not a single major law or even a reform." But Palin, along with another speaker that night, Rudy Giuliani, added a new talking point to the GOP arsenal: Obama's community organizing experience. "I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities," said Palin; while Giuliani feigned befuddlement at Obama's post-university career choice: "You have a resume from a gifted man with an Ivy League education. He worked as a community organizer … maybe this is the first problem on the resume."

The tens of thousands of community organizers scattered across the United States aren't exactly used to being in the spotlight, and they're definitely not accustomed to being criticized for their decision to pass up lucrative opportunities for low-paying, low-glamour positions in impoverished communities. "Honestly, I'm outraged and offended," says Jenn Jannon, 28, the Pennsylvania field director for Working America, the community-organizing wing of the AFL-CIO. "To hear the profession marginalized in that way is not only insulting to people who have dedicated their lives to social justice, it's also way off base."

The biggest surprise may have been for one particular organizer: Jerry Kellman, the man who supervised Obama when he arrived in Chicago to work for the Calumet Community Religious Conference (CCRC) on the South Side of Chicago. Kellman thinks the years that Obama spent in Chicago—meeting in church basements, liaising meetings between community members and earning a $10,000 salary for a job where 16-hour days were typical—were integral to the politician that he would become. And, on a larger scale, community organizers shape American communities, both urban and rural. NEWSWEEK's Sarah Kliff spoke with Kellman about his reaction to the comments; why community organizers are important; and how community organizing underlies the Obama campaign strategy. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What was your initial reaction to Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin's comments about community organizing?
JERRY KELLMAN: My initial reaction was that mockery and ridicule are the lowest form of criticism. People ultimately find it nasty and find it small and I thought there was a lot of that going on. There was also the irony of John McCain organizing a convention, which is about three and a half days of cheap shots, and then changing to this idea of serving your country. I thought it was inappropriate. It was disrespectful to Barack and all the people that he's worked with; and politically, it's a short-term tactic. It lowers the standard of public discourse but ultimately reflects badly on them.

What do you make of their perspective on organizing? What does it say about them?
I think it shows how much people from the wealthy and privileged sectors have dominated community life…People who are wealthy enough, don't need to be organizing. There are things you can fix easier if you know someone or have a little money. If you don't have access to those things, you need to come together and act. And that's a part of the world that very few candidates, Republican or Democrat have ever had experience in—the world of those who don't have access to political power.

Palin questioned what Obama did as an organizer, whether he had responsibilities. What was his job like?
In the beginning he was by himself, he would talk to me and I would support him but that was pretty brief. Mostly, he was on his own on a small budget. Out of those scarce resources, he was responsible for gathering people in large numbers. He had to change the power dynamics between business, government interests and the community. It's very challenging sort of work. A lot of people aren't glad that you're there: entrenched politicians, pastors of churches who see the work as a threat to how they're conducting business, attack your presence.

The first thing he did was listen to people, interview them one after another, and then look at notes. What I asked him to do was listen for a narrative, because when you hear someone's story you get to know him. From there, you're trying to identify who are the people willing to take this a step further and what issues they're willing to take on; how we might proceed. You find those people, and you try to talk them into stepping up, moving into public action around something they had previously given up on. From there you teach people how to do research, who makes what decisions and how things got to be the way they became in a particular situation; how to talk to the media; how to chair a meeting. It was a lot of teaching people how to empower their communities.

Do you think the time that Obama spent organizing was important to his political career?
I think it was the pivotal public experience of his public life. It's where his basic orientation in public life was formed. He learned that the way to get things done is to get people to work together, even though they may not like each other. His sense of compromise also developed there. Basically you carve out your ethical limits and make sure to never cross them but, within them, understand the need to use compromise to get things done. There's also his comfort with narrative. What he did was take this passion he had for story, which brought him to the brink of wanting to try being a novelist and short story writer, and began to use it as an organizer. That's the way he communicates still. Even one to one, sometimes his staff has to pull him away from a conversation because he's so eager to get people's story. A lot of that orientation was formed in organizing, his sense of what it means to be outside of things.

Why are community organizers important? What role do they play?
The chief thing they do is try to make democracy work. Democracy depends on people lifting their voice and being heard. There are people who have been rendered inarticulate by virtue of their situation... If you want to have anything to say about your situation, you need to gather with other people. You can't really do it alone. You need to learn certain skills that are important to public life, and that's the role of the community organizer. This stuff usually works in partnership with the government. Government initiatives tend to be faceless, bureaucratic and lack a personal touch. Local grassroots organizers are adding that personal touch to it, making sure communities are mobilizing for change.

Both of the candidates will be speaking next week at a forum hosted by Service Nation, an organization looking to promote community service among Americans. What would you like to see them saying?
I'd like to see John McCain saying, 'some people at my convention tried to make fun of community organizing and I disassociate myself with that.' I don't think that'll happen. I think service is something that changes people's character and contributes to solving problems. If it's coordinated with government initiatives and a very well-crafted public policy it can go a long way. One of the things Barack has put in his faith-based learning initiative is a call for intensive summer learning, so that children who are not getting enough by being in school normal weekdays need to be learning there in summer. It's going to be funded with a lot of faith-based initiatives and staffed by a lot of volunteers. And I know it sounds small, and maybe being a community organizer sounds pretty small-scale too, but it all adds up to big differences when it's done right.