By Vivian Gorham
Barack Obama learned community organizing first at his mother’s knee. Stanley Ann Dunham Obama Sotero was an anthropologist working in Asia on women and development projects during the time that the Grameen Bank came into being. In community organizing, community development, rural and urban development, and women and development circles – this is one of the most famous and most successful projects around. In fact, it was so successful that an attempt was made to utilize the model here in the United States during the days of welfare reform.
What community organizers learned during the days when Stanley Ann Dunham lived and worked in Indonesia is that without an understanding of the conditions on the ground, Westerners cannot go in country with their money and power and affect sustainable change. Designs imposed by outsiders will fall apart after they’ve gone. Or worse, large scale projects undertaken in ignorance of local conditions are likely to make conditions on the ground profoundly more dire.
Esther Boserup in her book Women’s Roles in Economic Development documented this phenomenon by demonstrating that Western agricultural projects in Africa centered around men and machines (tractors, center-pivot irrigation wells, loans) failed because men had never dominated in farming in Africa – unbeknownst to Westerners because it was unthinkable to us. In Africa, agriculture was a woman-dominated enterprise. Privileging the men in Western development schemes not only upset the eco-system, it also upset the social system. The result was not the elimination of poverty and hunger, but the increase of both as small agriculture was basically undermined and overthrown. The mechanized form of farming that was created was unsustainable and resulted in desertification of the land.
Respect for people at the community level is not only proper; it is the wisest course for intervention. And without speaking to the women, the untold, invisible side of the local story is not factored into development designs.
This one example illustrates that community organizing is infused with values – not ideology – but values.
Some of these community organizing values include:
o Listening to a broad range of people and stakeholders, beginning at the local level, including especially those who are typically not consulted.
o Needs and solutions are identified and designed by those who will live them out, rather than outsiders.
o Organizers function as facilitators and resources – providing locals with a larger picture of conditions, power alliances, networks, mentors, and financial opportunities – and then these resources are matched to local needs. All the choices, all the decisions, come out of dialogue at the local level. The organizers don’t have a say so.
o Relationship building is key. It is better to create or maintain a relationship than wage conflict and risk splitting the coalition of stakeholders or attracting a backlash from the powers that be before one is prepared for it. Therefore, the first projects are the most likely to succeed.
o The primary strategies for change include cooperation, campaign, and only as a last resort – conflict. Changes wrought as a result of conflict are the least likely to continue once the conflict is over. Change agents who win by waging conflict are likely to be quickly replaced – even if successful – by people who are less threatening to the majority of the community, and therefore the system will tend to return to the previous stasis or go backwards.
o Creating change requires a shift in the basic power structure, and therefore engenders opposition by existing power holders. One’s effectiveness is often measured in the strength of the firestorm that is created to oppose the change and maintain the status quo.
o Opportunities for change are like windows – they open up now and again when circumstances are transitioning, usually due to stress or emerging shifts in power. Community organizers need to be able to recognize and exploit these opportunities.
o Change happens. The smartest organizers will move with the tides of change; not against them.
President Obama recognized the window of opportunity that existed in this country in 2004 and articulated it at the Democratic Convention. Americans felt as though we had lost our democracy, as Republicans – controlled from the right wing of the party – imposed an ideologically driven agenda, which largely ignored the peoples’ pressing needs for health care reform and economic security.
Barack Obama continues as President to marry community organizing values and electoral politics, as he did in his campaign. He has the opposition raining vitriol on him daily. He is criticized by the right for being a socialist and from the social democrats and progressives on the left for not keeping his promises. We are so accustomed to the heavy-handed politics wielded by locked-in-step Republicans that we tend to view President Obama’s approach to power as soft, and Democrats efforts to legislate – not as evidence of dialogue among diverse constituencies – but as appeasement.
However, in spite of it all, look at what President Obama is doing. He is handling the mess left by the Wrecking Crew Gang – folks who appear not to believe in democracy any longer, but who have intentionally sought to impede the wheels of good governance by any means necessary.
Our President must figure out how to legally close Guantanamo and preserve public safety simultaneously. How we conduct ourselves with regard to international law going forward hangs in the balance, since the previous administration clearly violated international law and human rights.
Our President is allowing the legislative process on health care reform to take place in Congress – as, constitutionally, is meant to happen – stepping in now and then to tap things forward, reserving his involvement for the Conference Committee. Yet from the beginning he provided parameters for reform – the values piece that reflects the needs of the people, whom he listens to every day.
Our President is constantly gathering information and listening to a wide-range of stakeholders, including Republicans, on every issue. He refuses to shut them out, even as they refuse to support him.
President Obama’s actions may not make sense in the context of typical Washington politics, but they are certainly working and welcome abroad. His approach to the community of nations is the smartest, sanest and therefore, the safest approach – even as he prosecutes the wars he has inherited.
As evidence of the impact of this President’s values, two women sit at the table in the Situation Room with the generals – Secretary Hillary Clinton and Ambassador Susan Rice. A brilliant scholar, constitutional lawyer, and community organizer sits at the head of that table and will decide our course in two wars, while guiding economic recovery to the best of his ability. He holds the values of evolutionary peace and justice, of progress – not of the ideological left – but of the community organizer.
Ultimately, he is a practitioner intent on being the President of the people, by the people, and for all the people.
He went to Washington by mobilizing the people against the powers that be – the Republican Party, most of the Democratic Party, the main stream media and the corporations behind them. Once there, he is in the midst of those he ran against, and he cannot affect change without using the power of his office to forge relationships with those very power structures he seeks to change. Without their consent and cooperation at some level, change will not happen or will not endure. This includes banks, insurance companies, and the military.
It is completely naïve for the left to imagine that changing these systems can happen with a stroke of the pen by one man. Similarly, it is folly for those who operate by wielding hard power to assume this man won’t out think them, out organize them or out last them.
There is a new President and a new theory – not only of change – but of power in this country. Those of us who elected him need to stand by him now more than ever. Ultimately, he is on our side, and we are his base of power. We have his back. It is far too early to give up.