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Community Organizers Sobered By Reality

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Community Organizers Sobered By Reality


Community Organizers Sobered By Reality

Community Organizers Sobered By Reality

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When President Obama took office one year ago, liberal community organizers were ecstatic. They thought, with a former organizer in the White House, their voices would be heard. Obama aides promised them a seat at the table in the new administration. The organizers have had some success, but the reality of how hard it is to change Washington also has set in.


Something that came up a lot during his presidential campaign was that Barack Obama had once been a community organizer, which meant that when he took office a lot of advocacy groups were confident that the White House would welcome their efforts to bring about change. Here's NPR's Pam Fessler checking in one year later.

PAM FESSLER: Right after President Obama was elected, more than 2,000 community organizers gathered in Washington to celebrate. After all, he was one of their own, having spent years organizing in the streets of Chicago. They cheered when Obama's aides promised them a seat at the table in the new administration.

But that was a year ago.

Unidentified People: Bail out the people. Bail out the people. Bail out the people.

FESSLER: This was last month, when those same organizers were outside the White House, protesting a lack of jobs for the unemployed.

Unidentified Man: What do we want?

Unidentified People:: Jobs.

Unidentified Man: When do we want them?

Unidentified People: Now.

Unidentified Man: When do we want them?

Mr. DEEPAK BHARGAVA (Center for Community Change): I think the glow is definitely off.

FESSLER: Deepak Bhargava is executive director of the Center for Community Change, the group that organized the White House protests and last year's gathering. The center's been at the forefront trying to get community organizers who generally advocate for the poor and disadvantaged to be a force in Washington.

Mr. BHARGAVA: I think people are more sobered by the reality of what we are up against, how much entrenched power, how much old ways of doing business need to be broken through.

FESSLER: Something that doesn't necessarily change with a friend in the White House.

Several things community organizers set out to get this year - a public health care option, more jobs, an immigration bill - haven't come to pass, although there have been victories. Both houses of Congress passed health care legislation and the economic stimulus package increased spending on the poor.

Bhargava says organizers also have had new access, meeting dozens of times with top White House aides and lawmakers.

Mr. BHARGAVA: Community organizations have been involved in the national debate in a way that they never have been before.

Ms. ANNA MARIA GULATTA(ph) (Volunteer, Virginia Organizing Project): My name is Anna and I'm a volunteer at the Virginia Organizing Project.

FESSLER: And that involvement is something that keeps this organizer energized.

Ms. GULATTA: And we just had a few questions for your wife about a bill that's in the U.S. Senate.

FESSLER: Anna Maria Gulatta has spent hours calling Virginians, asking them to support tougher financial regulations.

Joe Szakos, head of the Virginia Organizing Project, says that's something new. Community groups like his generally work on local issues. But they've now banded together in a national network to take advantage of a more friendly political atmosphere in Washington. But he says organizers are also pragmatic.

Mr. JOE SZAKOS (Virginia Organizing Project): People knew that there was going to be a lot of rough and tumble but that they had to focus their energy, wherever they were, to try to make some meaningful reforms, and it wasn't going to be easy.

FESSLER: On the upside, he says, a lot more people have become involved. His group has brought busloads of community activists to Washington to lobby. They've also knocked on thousands of doors, collecting information about potential voters. They hope that gives them more clout with lawmakers. Szakos says many organizers are encouraged.

Mr. SZAKOS: Even if everything tells them that, you know, you only got 60 percent of this and 82 percent of that, that's more than they had before.

Ms. LILLY ESTES(ph) (Community Organizer): To me, I think in terms of long term a lot, so I wasn't expecting things to be so drastically different in one year.

FESSLER: Lilly Estes has been organizing in Virginia for a long time, mostly for public housing residents in Richmond. She understands that President Obama has to compromise to get things done. She says she's more pleased with how he's changed the tone in Washington.

Alicia Knight, another Virginia organizer, agrees.

Ms. ALICIA KNIGHT (Community Organizer): Two years ago, the big debate on Capitol Hill was - does putting somebody upside down and pouring water down their throats constitute torture? This year they were talking about health care.

FESSLER: And that's progress, she said, in which people like her have played a part.

But now what? Deepak Bhargava of the Center for Community Change is worried that if President Obama doesn't get a health care bill soon or do more to create jobs, the momentum could be lost.

Mr. BHARGAVA: The people will not turn out in the 2010 elections, that you'll see a kind of discouragement set in. So really the stakes are very high for what happens over these next few months.

FESSLER: All the more reason, he says, why community organizers need to keep the pressure up, whether it's from inside the White House or out.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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