Obama's Evolution From Organizer To Politician Barack Obama says he got his best education as a community organizer in Chicago, where his aim was to turn grievances into action. Lessons learned during that time can be seen in his run for president.
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Obama's Evolution From Organizer To Politician

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Obama's Evolution From Organizer To Politician

Obama's Evolution From Organizer To Politician

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered, I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Barack Obama was educated at topnotch schools, Occidental College, Columbia and Harvard Law. But he's repeatedly said that he got his best education in Chicago.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): I knew no one in Chicago when I arrived, was without money or family connections. But a group of churches had offered me a job as a community organizer for the grand sum of $13,000 a year.

NORRIS: Recently, I spent some time in Chicago to find out more about how his experience as a community organizer, shaped Obama as a politician. I spent some time with Jerry Kellman, the man who hired Obama. Kellman was surprised an ambitious Ivy League grad was interested in the job.

Mr. JERRY KELLMAN (Community Organizer, Chicago): It was in many ways, still remains about the most dead-end job that you can possibly find. There are no - there's no status in it. There's very little money, and there's no prospects, and you can't even explain to your - to your parents or in-laws what you do for living. And nobody who wasn't stupid would take that job to advance themselves.

Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Vice Presidential Candidate): I just say, small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities.

NORRIS: That line from Governor Palin at the GOP Convention was an effective political dig. The phrase "community organizer" does conjure up do-gooder images, soup kitchens, and meals-on-wheels programs. But it doesn't quite capture the bare knuckle aspects of the job. In Chicago, community organizing is often helped things get done politically.

And the organizers often lock horns with the cities entrenched political machine. For Obama, the battle ground centered around the Altgeld Gardens public housing complex. His goal was to organize residents to pressure the city to improve education and dangerous environmental conditions in the area. Jerry Kellman.

Mr. KELLMAN: Altgeld Garden is perhaps surrounded by more super-fund sites, the worst toxic-waste sites that the EPA identified in the country. And you would think that people would be concerned about environmental issues, but of course they weren't, because they didn't have jobs and their kids were at risk of drugs and gangs.

So, the environment meant nothing to them. And the way Barack got them to organize around the environment, was when he found that there was asbestos being removed from the manager's office, but not from the office of the residents.

NORRIS: Obama's aim turn grievance into action. It was done with a combination of motivation and intimidation. People flexing their muscle in the form of votes, and protests, and organized boycotts, strength in numbers. But at Altgeld, Obama became frustrated when change was slow in coming. Eventually, he decided to leave Chicago to attend law school at Harvard.

Mr. KELLMAN: He just felt that there was not going to be significant change doing what we were doing. And he was right, I mean, we could change people's lives on a one-on-one basis, and change small things in neighborhoods.

But if you were interested in transformation of race and poverty, it was going to take a long time doing that by community organizing and many, many generations.

(Soundbite of children playing)

NORRIS: When we visited Altgeld Gardens recently, things had improved, buildings are being renovated and flowers beds dot the yards. With so many journalist heading to this far south-side housing project to see where the Obama odyssey began, it appears that Altgeld has been spruced up in time for its close up.

But many of the changes are cosmetic. It's still surrounded by land fills and super-fund clean-up sites, and it still plagued by poverty, drugs, and gangs. On the day I visited, I noticed that a newly-installed metal fence had already been pierced by a bullet.

And because those problems still persist, some residents view Obama with a mixture of pride and frustration. Sheryl Johnson is currently a community organizer at Altgeld.

Ms. SHERYL JOHNSON (Community Organizer, Altgeld Gardens): He wasn't here long enough to really make significant impact. That's the reality about it, and he wasn't here long enough, so I really can't make that determination with that measure as to how it changed him as a person. But I understand he became a politician. And I really don't have respect for politicians.

NORRIS: Obama's success as a community organizer by his own admission might be mixed. But Kellman says there is ample evidence that the lessons he learned while trying to force change from the outside never left him.

For instance, when Obama returned to Chicago after law school with an eye toward politics, he used the skills he developed as a community organizer to work as a political operative. He helped run a group called Project Vote, a massive Illinois-registration drive in the run up to the 1992 presidential election. Project Vote is credited with registering at least 100,000 new voters.

Chicago Sun-Times journalist Laura Washington said, that was the bridge from Obama's role as a community organizer to political force.

Ms. LAURA WASHINGTON (Journalist, Chicago Sun-Times): So, there you have a case where he used his community-organizing skills to help the political establishment advance, to get folks registered to vote, to helped get people elected. He helped get Carol Moseley Braun elected.

He helped Bill Clinton do very well in Illinois in the '92 election. And so, quietly through community organizing, through political organizations, voter registration, he was building his constituency, and he was building up his chits.

NORRIS: The rest of Obama's political story is now a familiar narrative. Illinois Senate, failed attempt to run for Congress, successful race for U.S. Senate, and now a presidential campaign. The nuts-and-bolts lessons of community organizing, forging alliances, making people feel that they're part of some kind of movement, a bottom-up structure where volunteers feel they have an ownership stake.

All that has provided a template for Obama's political campaigns, especially his drive for the White House, as Jerry Kellman, the mentor who brought Obama to Chicago. As an example, Kellman points to Obama's ground operation in the primaries and caucuses.

Mr. KELLMAN: Barack had thousands of people coming in for free to do the same things the Clinton campaign were paying for, you know, because he was using their close kind of organizing, inspirational, motivational ways to do it. Movement organizing involves lots of people feeding off each other's enthusiasm.

Involves a charismatic leader who helps define the situation for people. It's directly out of the Civil Rights Movement, so he's doing a large massive public-event sort of strategy, at the same time he's doing nuts-and-bolts organizing.

NORRIS: Successful community-organizing campaigns are viral in nature. Enthusiasm or anger spreads from person to person to person, to eventually build a ground swell. Politics has always worked much the same way, but Kellman says, Obama added a new twist, from text message voting-day alerts, to My Obama web blogs. The candidate has used new technologies to spread his message in new ways.

Mr. KELLMAN: It's the first campaign that we've ever had that's depended on some lessons from organizing. And it's coupled that old-fashioned organizing with new technologies, with things that only people in their 20's know how to do well. And it's been amazing, it's changed the face of politics forever, but that's out of his organizing experience.

NORRIS: Perhaps a bit of an overstatement. It's a bit early to suggest that Obama has changed politics forever. But it's safe to say that the $13,000 a year position he took back in 1985, turned out to be anything but a dead-end job.

Next week, we'll look at how John McCain's background in Arizona and in Washington has shaped who he is today. And as always, there's more stories about the candidates at our website, npr.org.

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