Another Chance for Community Organizing in 2018 and 2020

Community organizer job opportunities are growing. Start-ups like Swing Left are seeking to create a national grassroots network of more than 300,000 volunteers to help take back the US House of Representatives by targeting the 78 most competitive races, enough to flip party control and change the country’s political agenda.

One of the biggest disappointments of Barack Obama’s presidency was that it did not engender a long-term wave of community organizers to sustain the president’s agenda and protect his veto-proof majority in the Congress, 2009-11. This failure, due to complacency and a faith in top-down rather than bottom-up political activism, ultimately spawned disappointment in Obama, distrust and disenchantment with the system among progressives and the Bernie Sanders “movement.”

What a hopeful, and naive time, in early 2009, when neighborhood groups like Chatham County (NC) Changemakers launched. I was a part of that group. We read a NYT piece, “Community Organizing Never Looked So Good,” and believed the “Obama era” was our moment. One early meeting attracted more than 40 people to my home to discuss health care reform.

“Once thought of as a destination for lefty radicals committed to living lives of low pay, frustration, and bitter burnout, community organizing is now seen by many young people as an exciting career,” the Times Sara Rimer reported.

“With their jobs, students envision helping communities address urgent issues — economics or the environment, education or social justice — while developing leadership skills.”

“…Certainly, there is an Obama effect. Through his presidential campaign and in his memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” Mr. Obama managed to glamorize and, more important, explain community organizing. He wrote about meeting with people in their homes and churches, listening to their stories, the failures and small victories…Mr. Obama “said it was the best education he ever had,” Mr. Rallins said. “Young people, they’re looking for certain intangible skills. They see the experience Obama got from community organizing — his concern, the way he relates with everyday people.”

What happened? It would be interesting to go back and interview the idealistic recruits of 2009 from that NYT article and find out what their experiences were.
The Center for Community Change is still going, celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2018, and even on an upsurge since Trump’s election.

After Obama’s election, there was clearly a reactionary wave against all that he stood for.

In politics, as in physics, each action creates an equal and opposite reaction: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. We may be seeing that on health care reform and immigration, coming to the end of the Republican counter-revolution and possibly moving toward consensus.

The bottom fell out of the US economy in 2008-11, far worse than anything anticipated, creating great hardships, frustration, and disappointment. My wife and I had to move abroad, to Turkey and then the United Arab Emirates, to sustain ourselves, so I don’t have first-hand knowledge of what happened in the US beyond that.

Health care reform proved to be far more complicated than many anticipated. Obamacare was a disappointment, in that it did not provide universal coverage nor the kind of national health care system the Canadians, the Brits, and the Europeans take for granted. It was an improvement for many — 20 million Americans gained health insurance coverage as a result — but America’s health care system is still quite flawed, with too high deductibles and unserved, or certainly underserved insurance markets.

The negative reaction to Obamacare resulted in severe losses in the 2010 and 2014 mid-term elections. Obama supporters did not pay enough attention to local races, and many who voted so enthusiastically in 2008 did not vote in the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014.

Aside from failures in electoral politics, however, Obama and his supporters did significantly increase the number of community volunteers. Congress in 2009 passed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which was slated to double the number of Americorps volunteers from 75,000 in 2008 to 250,000 in 2017.  However, Donald Trump is seeking to drastically cut Americorps.

Soon progressives who are outraged by Trump will have another opportunity to do the kind of community organizing, volunteering, and voting that could return Congress to Democratic hands, protect Obama’s legacy and build on it. Will they seize the opportunity?

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