Chicago Activist Inspired by Obama

John Owens, a veteran community organizer in Chicago, talks about how he met Barack Obama, and the working relationship they developed in the 1980's. Owens reflects on what they accomplished and the challenges confronting Chicago's Southside community now.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now it's time for Wisdom Watch. It's our weekly conversation with distinguished elders, people who can share not just knowledge but hopefully wisdom, gained from years of accomplishment. Today's guest grew up on the South Side of Chicago, a place that has always loomed large in the history and politics of this country, and never more so than now because of presumed Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. He often speaks of the city's South Side that gave him his start as a community organizer.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democratic Presidential Presumptive Nominee, Illinois): I'm reminded of the Latino brothers and sisters I organized with and stood with and fought with side by side for jobs and justice on the streets of Chicago. I was a young organizer then, a young organizer intent on fighting joblessness and poverty on the South Side.

I've walked arm and arm with community leaders on the South Side of Chicago. I marched with you in the streets of Chicago.

The work I did many years ago in Chicago to help lift neighborhoods that were devastated by the closure of a local steel plant.

MARTIN: Joining us to talk about his work as a community organizer in Chicago is John Owens, who worked with Obama in the 1980s. Welcome, thank you for talking to us.

Mr. JOHN OWENS (Community Organizer, Chicago): Thank you.

MARTIN: First of all, what does a community organizer do?

Mr. OWENS: Well, primarily a community organizer is someone who goes into an area and builds relationships with community residents for the purpose of understanding what their, you know, values and vision is for the area and sets about the work of helping them to achieve it.

MARTIN: How did you get started in this work?

Mr. OWENS: I had always had an interest in community development, and I got a degree in urban geography from Chicago State University and, you know, after working at the Department of Planning for the city of Chicago for a brief period of time, I landed a job with the organization called Friz the Parks(ph), a local park advocacy group. ..TEXT: One day while I was at work, Barack Obama walked into the office and we began to, you know, have a conversation about, you know, neighborhoods and just what it takes to actually make some things change in a major way. You know, I could see that he was very astute and knowledgeable and had a certain perspective about things, and he began to talk to me about community organizing and the work that organizers do. One thing led to another and he invited me to a two-week leadership training event.

MARTIN: So you went and got some actual training in how to get people interested?

Mr. OWENS: Well, first of all, how to build relationships with people and understand what motivates them, what - what are the kind of things that basically makes them tick. And that involves a whole range of skills: building relationships, understanding public policy, understanding how to conduct effective meetings. Everything from, you know, how to raise money, how to help people understand the importance of money, how to help people from the community think strategically.

MARTIN: What do you like about your work?

Mr. OWENS: The thing I like most about my work is the relationship building aspect of things. Actually sitting down, trying to understand what it is that concerns them, you know, helping them move from a point of feeling not that things can't change to a point where things can change, and helping them take action on their values and their dreams.

MARTIN: Speaking of dreams, you figure in Barack Obama's book, "Dreams From My Father." Have you ever read it?

Mr. OWENS: Yes. Yes, I have. It's been a while, but I've read it.

MARTIN: You're in it.

Mr. OWENS: Yes.

MARTIN: I think he was your mentor, right? Wasn't it that he brought you into the organization and kind of helped you get started?

Mr. OWENS: Right.

MARTIN: Were you disappointed when he went on to law school after working in the community for a number of years?

Mr. OWENS: Well, it was a little bit of a - you know, a mixed feeling. I mean, you know, I came out there to work with him, and obviously him leaving didn't allow for that to happen. I was very comfortable with the way he left. I mean, he was honest and upfront about the challenges that I would face. He left the organization in a very good position so I mean, it was a good transition.

MARTIN: That kind of leads me to a question, which is, I think some people wonder why there are still community organizers, if you want to call it that, just because there have been times in this country when people have been specifically excluded from access to institutional power, and we live in a time in which it is a group of people - whole groups of people are not specifically excluded from power.

There are people in Congress who are formally, you know, on welfare. I can think of at least two. There are people, you know, at all levels of political involvement who have had - from all kinds of different backgrounds. So I think some people would say, well, how come that doesn't take care of it? Why isn't elected leadership enough? Why isn't it enough for people to just be involved in the system, as it were? Why is there still a need for somebody like you, who is not an elected leader per se, is not a public official, to get people in the neighborhoods to advocate for them or to help them advocate for themselves? Do you know what I'm saying?

Mr. OWENS: Yeah. I hear clearly what you're saying, and I would answer that simply by saying because we've still got significant problems out there that - that need to be solved, and I think that it's important that people begin the process of solving those problems for themselves. I mean, taking case in point, we have a huge problem right now in Chicago around gangs and youth violence. And there's been a lot of research around what the solutions could be and should be and, you know, nevertheless, you know, there doesn't seem to be enough of an organized strategic response in any community in Chicago to address that problem.

MARTIN: What do you think that you do as a community organizer that a politician doesn't do?

Mr. OWENS: The one thing that I think I do is to bring people together for their own self interest and not the interest of one particular political entity, and I think that that allows people to think about what it is they want to achieve, irregardless of whether or not it's going to be good for the next election.

MARTIN: Some people are having an existential problem with the possibility that Senator Obama might become president. You know, they are worried that if somebody like him gets to be president that people will think, you know what? All problems are now solved and we don't have to do anything else. Do you ever worry about that?

Mr. OWENS: Well, I would hope that Barack would be the first person to say that him being elected is only the beginning of a process that needs to happen in terms of our communities, that all any president can actually do is set the framework and the context for change and that the real work of change has to come from communities and the people in them themselves. In other words, he's not going to be able to do for people what they need to do for themselves. He can create a context for that to happen.

MARTIN: We've talked about hopelessness and we've talked about hope. How do you maintain hope?

Mr. OWENS: Well, I believe in Christian principles of hope and how, you know, Jesus taught us that hope is the primary fuel of a good Christian. And I read a lot in terms of people like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and I feel that, you know, it's just - I don't know, the right thing to do to try and pick up on their legacy.

MARTIN: You know, they say that journalists are supposed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, and I'm not sure how often we actually do that, but it strikes me that you're that guy. Are you that guy?

Mr. OWENS: Well, I guess, yes, I guess I am. I try to do that but maintain somewhat of a low profile, you know.

MARTIN: Oh. So we're busting you out. We're peeping your card. Are you one of those guys that when the city folk see you coming they duck? They go, oh, no, there's Johnny Owens again, I'm in trouble.

Mr. OWENS: Yeah. I guess I could be a pain.

MARTIN: Is that ever hard?

Mr. OWENS: You know, we have a saying, that if everybody likes you, you're probably not doing your job.

MARTIN: I'm going to remember that. John Owens is a community organizer with the Organization of the Northeast in Chicago. He worked with Senator Obama on the city's South Side in the 1980s. Mr. Owens joined us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. I thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. OWENS: You're welcome.

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