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By Mocking Community Organizers, GOP Risks Grassroots Backlash

Black America Web.com , Jackie Jones, Posted: Sep 09, 2008

When former Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin attacked Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obamas experience as a community organizer, they unleashed a furious response from many of the nations organizers that could result in increased support for Obama.

Quite frankly, and sadly, this woman who aspires to the vice presidency of the United States doesnt respect how a lot of the real social service work in this country happens, said Phill Wilson, founder and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute. Its in the small, grassroots organizations.

Where does she think responsibility happens in this country? It happens on the community level, Wilson told BlackAmericaWeb.com. All politics begins locally and it starts on the local level in communities. Its frightening that someone who wants to be the vice president of the United States has such disdain for that work.

Within hours of Giuliani and Palins speeches at the Republican National Convention last week in St. Paul, community organizations began issuing news releases accusing the GOP of denigrating the work they do on behalf of working class Americans.

When Sarah Palin demeaned community organizing, she didnt attack another candidate. She attacked an American tradition -- one that has helped everyday Americans engage with the political process and make a difference in their lives and the lives of their neighbors, Deepak Bhargave, executive director of the 40-year-old Center for Community Change, said in a news release.
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In another statement, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now expressed disappointment that the GOP chose to attack the work of community organizers for political gain.

The fact that they marginalize our success in empowering low- and moderate-income people to improve their communities further illustrates their lack of touch with ordinary people, ACORN President Maude Hurd said. Every great movement in the history of the world has community organizing.

At the GOP convention, in front of a partisan crowd of fellow Republicans, Palin and Giuliani received cheers and laughter when they made their not-so-indirect attacks on Obama.

I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities, Palin said in her convention speech, suggesting Obamas experience as an organizer paled in comparison to her experience as governor.

Giuliani took a jab at Obama earlier in the evening, calling his community organizing work the first problem of his resume.

What neither of them reckoned, however, was that their remarks would deeply offend and anger community organizers across the country.

Community organizing, and the people who do this work, have been the saving grace for millions of people -- especially African Americans in the United States for years, said the Rev. Susan Newman, adjunct minister of Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ, in Washington, D.C. This is the most effective way for ordinary people to get the attention of out-of-touch politicians and their failed policies.

It has been because of community organizing around campfires, by riverbanks, in church basements and on 30-minute lunch breaks that the foundation for great movements have been born -- the civil rights movement, the women's suffrage movement, labor rights, and the 40-hour workweek, Newman told BlackAmericaWeb.com. It is from the womb of community organizing that we have the NAACP, SCLC, the Children's Defense Fund, AFL-CIO, AFSCME, NOW, and millions more.

KeystoneProgress, an online network of community organizers, has launched a petition drive calling for the Republican Party, McCain and Palin to make a public apology for their inaccurate portrayal of community organizers, said Michael Morrill, executive director of the Pennsylvania-based organization.

They tried to belittle the experience of Barack Obama, setting it up as if Obamas job as a community organizer was equivalent to being governor, Morrill told BlackAmericaWeb.com. No one ever implied that it was. He has talked about how that experience transformed his life and the role that experience played in who he became.

Morrill, 53, had his first assignment as a community organizer in Massachusetts at the age of 19.

Several people in responding to the online petition have shared their personal experience of being a community organizer or benefiting from the work of community organizers, Morrill said.

Still he said, What we are finding is there are people who really dont know what it means to be a community organizer. They think it means being a communist operative, someone who undermines their whole way of life.

But politicians -- especially those like Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, and Palin, the governor of Alaska -- know better because they have seen first hand the work of community organizers.

Politicians speak negatively about community organizers so that they can manipulate peoples fears and ignorance so that they can get elected, Morrill said.

KeystoneProgress is not affiliated with any political party or campaign but its members are passionate about helping communities and the people who live in those communities improve the quality of life, Morrill said.

This week, KeystoneProgress will present the petitions to McCain, Morrill said.

A group of community organizations has demanded an apology from Palin and launched a Web site expressing their dismay.

The last thing we need is for Republican officials to mock us on television when were trying to rebuild the neighborhoods they have destroyed, John Raskin, founder of Community Organizers of America and a community organizer on the West Side of Manhattan, wrote on the Web site.

In a column on CNN.com, political analyst Roland Martin said he received many emails from people angry over the disparaging comments about Obamas community organizing work.

It would have been perfectly fine for Giuliani and Palin to say that Obama's community organizing days didnt amount to enough experience to be president, Martin wrote in his column. But when you openly laugh and mock those hard-working Americans who are in the trenches every day, then you really dont care about Country First or service.

The Black AIDS Institutes Wilson said voters must look beyond rhetoric in deciding for whom to vote in November.

If Governor Palin says she is going to be an advocate for special needs children, then we should look at her record as governor. And that should include, at least from where I sit, those families whose special need is they are dealing with HIV/AIDS.

What does the governor know about HIV in Detroit, Newark and Oakland and what is her plan to end AIDS in Washington, D.C.? Wilson asked.

Meanwhile, Rev. Newman said Giuliani and Palins comments attacking community organizing may have had the unintended effect of generating more support for Obama.

Now, because of Giuliani and Palin's speeches that denigrated Senator Obamas work as a community organizer, she said, millions are even more committed to organize our community against the threat of a McCain-Palin administration.

Sherrel Wheeler Stewart contributed to this story.

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