President-elect Obama: The ultimate community organizer

A car displays the phrase 'Yes We Did'
A car in Minneapolis displays the phrase, 'Yes We Did' following the election of Sen. Barack Obama. At one point during the campaign, Obama's experience as a community organizer drew fire. Local activits say they hope as president, Obama will become the ultimate community organizer.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

At one point during the election campaign, several prominent Republicans took issue with one aspect of President-elect Barack Obama's resume.

Community organizer.

Some asked, pointedly, what does it mean to organize the community?

Brett Buckner, an organizer for the state DFL party explains.

"What it means simply is pulling together a group of individuals for a common cause."

Brent Buckner
Brent Buckner, who's an organizer for the Minnesota DFL party, says his organizing career started at the age of six when he and his fellow Boy's Club members joined forces to get to some cookies that were stored out of their reach. He says President-elect Obama's experience as an organizer tells him anything is truly possible.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

Buckner is a 36-year-old African American who's been involved in various causes throughout his life.

Buckner says his organizing career started at the age of six. That's when he and his fellow Boy's Club members joined forces to get to some cookies that were stored out of their reach.

These days the stakes are much higher and Buckner says Obama has set an example for others to follow.

"If President-elect Obama can do it - and he came from Chicago, and he did the organizing on the streets, working with the churches, working with the common everyday people, you know what - I've been doing for a little while or I know I can do that," Buckner said. "So I think it's going to change the mindset, not only within the African American community, but just with people in general."

There are people who do the work of community organizing, but don't necessarily label themselves as such.

Take Ralph Crowder. He's 37 and an African-American who's sitting in the lunchroom of his son's south Minneapolis school. Crowder is a regular here.

Ralph Crowder
Ralph Crowder, a 37-year-old African-American, says he's not sure about how much President-elect Obama's experiences will inspire others. Crowder says Obama's service to low- income people in Chicago is admirable - but he wonders if Obama would have been a stronger force if he'd returned to community development rather than heading for higher office.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

"I've been dealing with school issues with my kids for a while."

Crowder has two kids in Minneapolis public schools and he's dedicating this year to regularly attending school with his children.

His observations make him worry that the system isn't doing what it should to help black students close the achievement gap. So a few months ago he organized a call-to-action meeting with other African-American parents and community members.

Crowder doesn't call himself a community organizer. He says he's more of a communicator - someone who can be in the schools and report what he finds to other parents.

"I can bring that voice to the table - somebody who's not invested in this as an employee," Crowder said, "but somebody who's invested in this as a parent."

When asked if he thought the election of a former community organizer to the White House might inspire others to follow his path, Crowder stops short of cheering on President-elect Obama.

He has mixed feelings. On one hand, he says Obama's service to low income people in Chicago is admirable - but he wonders about the calling to higher office.

"I would have thought Obama would have been a stronger force if he would have went back to that community and went back to developing community on principle - than doing a political thing to be a president."

Crowder's concerned that Obama's example may lead others to see community-based work only as a steppingstone to higher office.

However, some, like Minneapolis City Council Member Ralph Remington say being an elected official is just another level of community organizing.

"In its essence, I think the president should probably be the ultimate community organizer," Remington said. "If the president can't bring together those at the bottom to unite with those at the top for a better existence, then what the hell does a president do?"

Remington grew up in Philadelphia and as a teenager became involved in neighborhood politics.

He later organized a group of students at his high school to petition the school board for better books and lockers. Remington was also an union organizer in Los Angeles before he came to the Twin Cities.

He says he learned how to translate community organizing into politics by attending a training session known as Camp Wellstone - named for the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone.

"That taught you how to organize a campaign the Wellstone way - which is you don't need a lot of money, but you get people energized around an idea," Remington said. "They own it - and they feel invested in your campaign, so subsequently I was out-spent in my campaign for city council 2-1, but I was able to beat five other opponents."

Remington says he hopes that young people will follow Obama's example and get involved in their communities and in electoral politics.

And Remington himself may also continue on Obama's path. When asked if he's interested in pursuing higher office, Remington says, 'Stay tuned.'

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