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Creation Myth

What Barack Obama won't tell you about his communityorganizing past.

In late October 1987, Barack Obama and Jerry Kellman took a weekend off from their jobs as community organizers in Chicago and traveled to a conference on social justice and the black church at Harvard. During an evening break in the schedule, they strolled around campus in their shirtsleeves, enjoying the unseasonably warm weather. Two-and-a-half years earlier, Kellman had hired Obama to organize residents of Chicago's South Side. Now, Obama had something to tell his friend and mentor.

It had to do, in part, with his father. At the time, Obama had just learned from his African half-sister what had happened to Barack Obama Sr., who abandoned him when he was two years old. After receiving his master's degree in economics from Harvard, the elder Obama had returned to Kenya, where he became a high-ranking government official. But, when he criticized Kenya's increasingly corrupt and authoritarian government, he lost his job and had to live from hand to mouth, depending on the goodwill of relatives while drinking heavily. Obama told Kellman that he feared ending up destitute and unhappy like his dad. "He wanted to marry and have children, and to have a stable income," Kellman recalls.

But Obama was also worried about something else. He told Kellman that he feared community organizing would never allow him "to make major changes in poverty or discrimination." To do that, he said, "you either had to be an elected official or be influential with elected officials." In other words, Obama believed that his chosen profession was getting him nowhere, or at least not far enough. Personally, he might end up like his father; politically, he would fail to improve the lot of those he was trying to help.

And so, Obama told Kellman, he had decided to leave community organizing and go to law school. Kellman, who was already thinking of leaving organizing himself, found no reason to argue with him. "Organizing," Kellman tells me, as we sit in a Chicago restaurant down the street from the Catholic church where he now works as a lay minister, "is always a lost cause." Obama, circa late 1987, might or might not have put it quite that strongly. But he had clearly developed serious doubts about the career he was pursuing.

Yet, two decades later, to hear Obama the presidential candidate tell it, those years in Chicago as a community organizer shaped the person--and the politician--he has become. Campaigning in Iowa last year, he declared that community organizing was "the best education I ever had, better than anything I got at Harvard Law School." In a video this spring, Obama stated that community organizing is "something I carry with me when I think about politics today-- obviously at a different level and in a different place, but the same principles still apply." "Barack is not a politician first and foremost," Michelle Obama has said. "He's a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change."

Certainly, Obama has good reason to tout his community organizing experience. After graduating from an Ivy League college, Obama passed up more lucrative jobs to devote three years to organizing low-income African Americans in Chicago. That choice tells us something about his values, and his pride in it is understandable.

But his campaign has taken the point a step further, implying that Obama the politician is a direct descendant of Obama the organizer--that he has carried the practices and principles of community organizing into his campaign, and would carry them into the White House as well. This is the version of Obama's biography that most journalists have accepted.

In truth, however, if you examine carefully how Obama conducted himself as an organizer and how he has conducted himself as a politician, if you consider what he said about organizing to his fellow organizers, and if you look at the reasons he gave friends and colleagues for abandoning organizing, then a very different picture emerges: that of a disillusioned activist who fashioned his political identity not as an extension of community organizing but as a wholesale rejection of it. Indeed, the most important thing to know about Barack Obama's time as a community organizer in Chicago may not be what he gained from the experience--but rather why, in late 1987, he decided to quit.

OBAMA ARRIVED in South Chicago in 1985 to find a bleak scene. Roseland and the northern edge of Riverdale, the neighborhoods to which he was assigned, had been decimated by the collapse of the steel industry. In Dreams from My Father, Obama wrote of "the boarded-up homes, the decaying storefronts, the aging church rolls, [and the] kids from unknown families who swaggered down the streets." Most middle-class whites had moved out, and, while the area was home to a few middleclass blacks, "[t]he stores and banks had left with their white customers, causing main thoroughfares to decompose." Many of the area's residents lived in the 2,000-unit Altgeld Gardens, public housing that was bounded by the fetid Calumet River, an expressway, and a sewage treatment plant that emitted, Obama wrote, a "heavy, putrid odor."

The election in 1983 of Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington, had given blacks in South Chicago "a new idea of themselves," Obama observed. Yet the mayor's efforts to revive the city's worst neighborhoods were stymied by the conservative white majority on the city council.

Obama had moved to Chicago to work for Kellman, a transplanted New Yorker eleven years his senior, and his partner, Mike Kruglik. The pair was trying to build a regional community organization that spanned South Chicago, Chicago's southern suburbs, and Northwest Indiana. Kellman and Kruglik wanted their new recruit to establish a branch centered in Roseland. It was to be called the Developing Communities Project.

Obama had worked briefly as an organizer in Harlem, but, in Chicago, he learned the principles of community organizing from Kellman, Kruglik, and other disciples of Saul Alinsky, a hardscrabble, profane Chicagoan who, in the late 1930s, had organized white ethnic meatpacking workers in the area around the old Chicago Stockyards. Alinsky was heavily influenced by John L. Lewis, the president of the United Mine Workers and founder of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). He wanted to do for working-class communities what Lewis and the CIO had done for workplaces: unite people of different backgrounds around common goals and use their collective strength to wring concessions from the powers that be.

Alinsky had died in 1972, but not before achieving considerable success in Chicago and other cities. And, while some of his opinions--like his derogation of Martin Luther King's abilities as an organizer--were not shared by Kellman and other followers, his general principles would guide groups like the Gamaliel Foundation, which trained people who went on to work for the Developing Communities Project and similar organizations. They became the underpinning of Obama's approach. "His assignment was to operate in the classic style," Kruglik, a stubby, scruffy, intense man who now works for Gamaliel, tells me.

These rules can be reduced, more or less, to a few central ideas. Alinsky believed that humans respond to their own selfinterest rather than conscience or morality. (People are "moved primarily by perceived immediate self-interests, " he argued, while morality is a "rhetorical rationale for expedient action and self-interest.") As a result, the job of an organizer is to discover what citizens think is in their self-interest and then help them fight for it. Alinsky also instructed that the organizer himself should not become a public leader, but should operate behind the scenes to encourage "natural" or "native" leaders among the people he is organizing. That is, the goal of an organizer is never to create a movement based on his own charisma. ("We're trying to build an organization with staying power, not a movement based on instant power and charisma," Ernesto Cortes Jr., a prominent Alinsky disciple, explained in 1988. ) Finally, Alinsky felt that organizers should draw a clear line between their work and the political world. An organization should forge "no permanent political ties," declared a guide put out by the Industrial Areas Foundation, which Alinsky created. When I asked former community organizer John Kretzmann-- who teaches at Northwestern and writes about organizing--whether organizers saw all politicians as "whores," he replied, "Even if you found one that wasn't, it makes no sense to get close to them."

Obama attempted to put these principles into practice in South Chicago. Kellman and Kruglik's initial objective was to revive the region's manufacturing base--and preserve what remained of its steel industry--by working with unions and church groups to pressure companies and the city; but those hopes were quickly dashed. Indeed, during his three years in South Chicago, Obama was constantly having to scale back his objectives as one project after another faltered. First, he got community members to demand a job center that would provide job referrals, but there were few jobs to distribute. Then, he tried to create what he called a "second-level consumer economy" in Roseland consisting of shops, restaurants, and theaters. This, too, went nowhere. At that point, Kellman advised Obama to move elsewhere. "Stay here, and you are bound to fail," he told him.

But Obama remained. Next, he began to focus on providing social services for Altgeld Gardens. "We didn't yet have the power to change state welfare policy, or create local jobs, or bring substantially more money into the schools," he wrote. "But what we could do was begin to improve basic services at Altgeld-- get the toilets fixed, the heaters working, the windows repaired." Obama helped the residents wage a successful campaign to get the Chicago Housing Authority to promise to remove asbestos from the units; but, after an initial burst of activity, the city failed to keep its promise. (As of last year, some residences still had not been cleared of asbestos.) In waging these campaigns, Obama's organization added staff, gained adherents, and won church support, including from the congregation of Reverend Jeremiah Wright. But it failed to stem the area's overall decline. "Ain't nothing gonna change, Mr. Obama," says one resident quoted in Dreams from My Father who grows disillusioned with the Developing Communities Project. "We just gonna concentrate on saving our money so we can move outta here as fast as we can."

Publicly, however, Obama did not appear discouraged. He continued to train other organizers for the Gamaliel Foundation. "It was the same traditional organizing leadership training," recalls Obama trainee David Kindler. Obama also put the best face on what he was doing. Sometime before he left Chicago, he wrote an article for a magazine called Illinois Issues that would eventually appear in an anthology titled After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois. In the article, he insisted that his project had achieved "impressive results" in South Chicago. While acknowledging that the "exodus from the inner city of financial resources, institutions, role models and jobs" posed difficulties for organizers, he insisted that "none of these problems is insurmountable."

Reflecting organizers' general attitude toward politicians, he downplayed the importance of Mayor Washington. "The election of Harold Washington in Chicago or of Richard Hatcher in Gary were not enough to bring jobs to inner- city neighborhoods or cut a 50 percent drop-out rate in the schools, although they did achieve an important symbolic effect," he wrote. "In fact, much-needed black achievement in prominent city positions has put us in the awkward position of administering underfunded systems neither equipped nor eager to address the needs of the urban poor and being forced to compromise their interests to more powerful demands from other sectors." To be successful, Obama argued, the efforts of politicians had to be "undergirded by a systematic approach to community organization." Obama also criticized the role of charismatic leadership, writing that "a viable organization can only be achieved if a broadly based indigenous leadership-- and not one or two charismatic leaders-- can knit together the diverse interests of their local institutions."

YET THERE is considerable evidence that, even as he was writing these words, Obama was having doubts about community organizing. By the early fall of 1987-- a little more than two years after he had come to Chicago--Obama had decided to apply to Harvard Law School. At some point thereafter, he began to explain his decision to friends and colleagues. The most revealing of these discussions are not reported in Dreams from My Father.

It was not just the walk he took with Kellman through Harvard's campus. Obama also talked to Kruglik about his reasons for leaving Chicago. In their conversations, he described politics--and winning political office--as the most important step toward achieving change. And, instead of seeing Harold Washington as buffeted by forces beyond his control, he now aspired to be Washington. "He was fascinated by Mayor Washington," says Kruglik. "Harold Washington inspired him to think about becoming a politician." Kruglik says that Obama wanted to follow in the mayor's footsteps: Washington had gone to law school, later becoming a state senator, then a congressman, and finally Chicago's mayor. "He told me that he was thinking of running for mayor some day, " Kruglik says.

Obama also talked to Northwestern professor John McKnight, a former community organizer who is a member of the Gamaliel Foundation's board of directors and had helped to train Obama. He asked McKnight for a law school recommendation and told him that he eventually wanted to go into politics. McKnight warned him that politics, unlike community organizing, would inevitably require compromising his values and ideals. "The average legislator is surrounded by competing interests," McKnight told him. "Most of the time what they are doing is trying to balance interests." Obama, however, was not to be dissuaded. Recalls McKnight, "At the time, neighborhood organizing was very parochial. ... He could see that the impact wouldn't reach beyond the neighborhood. The change he was seeking was bigger."

But it wasn't simply that Obama dreamed of pursuing change on a grander scale. By late 1987, he seems to have grown disillusioned with the underlying principles of community organizing. In September 1989, the editors of Illinois Issues organized a symposium featuring, among others, the contributors to After Alinsky. It took place around a circular table in a conference room at the Woods Charitable Fund (a backer of the Gamaliel Foundation) in downtown Chicago. Kretzmann was the moderator, and participants included political scientist Paul Green, author Ben Joravsky, and Obama, who was then entering his second year of law school.

Joravsky kicked off the discussion by recounting Alinsky's core principles. Green then brought up a controversial organization, Save our Neighborhoods/Save our City (SON/SOC), that had launched in February 1984 in response to fears that Harold Washington would promote public housing in certain white neighborhoods--leading to an influx of black residents. As Green noted, son/soc was organized by Alinsky disciples who were following their mentor's principle of basing demands on self-interest.

Green insisted that there was an anti-establishment core to son/soc's agenda. "Here are a bunch of blue-collar people ... working to help their neighborhood, " he said. He also pointed out that the group had carefully directed its ire against unscrupulous realtors rather than blacks and had tried to reach an accommodation with Mayor Washington. Joravsky responded by criticizing son/soc for using racial appeals to build its organization. As others joined and the argument threatened to grow heated, Kretzmann called on Obama to discuss organizing in low-income black communities. But Obama had been provoked by the discussion of son/soc. And, a year removed from South Chicago, he wanted to say something about community organizing in general.

Obama--sporting a white shirt, tie, and incipient Afro--was clearly troubled by the example of SON/SOC, which suggested that an organization, acting on Alinsky's principles, could become racist. (Indeed, Alinsky's first group, the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, had become a bastion of support for segregationist George Wallace in the 1960s.) Obama was also troubled by his own experience in South Chicago, where he had failed to make any headway on the community's central problem--the absence of jobs--and had been reduced to demanding repairs in public housing. That, too, had derived from acting according to Alinsky's principle of trying to win victories against the powers that be based on immediate self-interest.

But Obama was not ready to state his case forthrightly. ("We were all on our best behavior," Joravsky recalls.) Instead, he expressed his doubts obliquely by drawing a distinction between the "two roles that an organizer was supposed to play ... getting power, getting the stop sign, making things work" and "the educative function of organizing." By the latter, Obama meant an organizer's duty to frame citizens' efforts in terms of a larger objective and a greater good: something more noble than dissuading realtors from selling homes to blacks in white neighborhoods or more substantial than getting a stop sign installed.

Obama put it this way: "The process whereby people in communities, like the community SON/SOC was organizing or the community where I was organizing, start to get bigger horizons, start to understand how they connect up with other people, how their power is involved with the power of other people--it seems to me that that strain gets lost. ... At some point, you have to link up winning that stop sign or getting that home equity with the larger trends, larger movements in the city or the country." He quoted an Alinsky disciple as saying, "I am not trying to build some grand utopian organization. I would just like to win it." "That's problematic," Obama noted. In other words, winning wasn't important if what was won was harmful or insignificant.

But Obama didn't stop there. He had a litany of criticisms of Alinsky-style organizing that he wanted to put forward. He objected to community organizers' dismissal of charismatic leadership and of movements. Instead of making the point directly, he recalled a friend telling him of an IAF trainer who complained that "movements are rotten with charismatic leaders." Obama said his friend had responded, "That's nonsense. We want a movement. I would love to have Martin Luther King here right now." Obama argued that charismatic leaders and movements bring "long-term vision," and that community organizers cannot be effective without such vision.

Obama also criticized community organizers' "suspicion of politics." "The problem we face now in terms of organizing is that politics is a major arena of power," Obama said. "That's where your major dialogue, discussion, is taking place. To marginalize yourself from that process is a damaging thing, and one that needs to be rethought."

Before he was done, Obama had rejected the guiding principles of community organizing: the elevation of self-interest over moral vision; the disdain for charismatic leaders and their movements; and the suspicion of politics itself. But he did so in a way that seemed to elude the other participants. Two decades later, Green couldn't recall any disagreement over his more positive take on son/soc. Joravsky also didn't remember Obama's criticisms of organizing. Instead, he recalled thinking how "cool" and "well-spoken" Obama was.

Obama, too, seemed initially oblivious to the harsh implications of his own words. While he was at Harvard, he would return to Chicago to train organizers at Gamaliel, and, after graduating and moving back to Chicago, he would retain ties to the city's community organizing network--serving on the boards of the Woods fund and the Lugenia Burns Hope Center, which promotes organizing among African Americans on the city's South Side. But he would never again practice community organizing, as he did in the 1980s. And he would begin to construct a political identity for himself that was not simply different from his identity as a community organizer--but was, in fact, its very opposite.

BASED PURELY on his organizing background, one would have expected Obama to become a bread-and-butter politician, a spokesman for his constituents' immediate needs. Instead, Obama became a politician of vision, not issues--one who appealed to voters' values rather than their immediate self-interest. As a state senator in Illinois, he was best known for his advocacy of government reform. Asked in September 1999 to explain why someone should vote for him for Congress against incumbent Bobby Rush, Obama told the Hyde Park Citizen that, unlike Rush, he had "a vision." And, as a Democratic presidential candidate, he has run on an abstract platform of "change" that appeals to many young and upscale voters, but has fallen flat among the white working-class voters whom Alinsky once courted.

Obama has also eschewed the retiring persona of the organizer. Initially awkward as a speaker, he became a charismatic politician whose run for president has produced something very much like a movement. And, while his campaign has used some techniques from community organizing to rally state-by- state support, it is the antithesis of the ground-up, locally dominated, naturally led network of community groups that Alinsky envisioned. Obama, in short, has become exactly the kind of politician his mentors might have warned against.

None of this is to say that Obama was wrong to abandon community organizing for politics. Or that his critique of organizing was incorrect. In fact, many of today's community organizers would acknowledge that Obama was absolutely right to question the limitations of Alinskystyle organizing. The elevation of self-interest at the expense of higher ideals can clearly be an ugly thing. Improving people's lives has to be about more than installing stop signs. And no one who hopes to truly change urban communities can stay out of politics altogether. Indeed, in contrast to what Alinsky advised, many community organizations now participate in political campaigns.

Still, one has to wonder: In making the transition from organizer to politician, did Obama go too far in rejecting one of the cardinal principles of community organizing? True, appeals to selfinterest can sometimes lead organizations astray. But such appeals are also a necessary part of community organizing-- and politics as well. Few candidates could hope to win an election at any level without convincing their constituents that they understand their immediate hopes and fears. And presidential candidates are no exception. Bill "I feel your pain" Clinton certainly had the ability to persuade voters that he identified with their interests. So did Ronald Reagan. Al Gore and John Kerry did not.

In this election, Obama can count on the votes of African Americans in Roseland as well as many upscale voters attracted by his message of change. But he also needs to win support from the descendants of Back of the Yards and SON/SOC--working-class voters who, today, are more worried about high gas prices and rising heath care costs than about the prospect of blacks moving in next door. To win their votes, Obama needs to do precisely what he once taught organizers to do: speak to the self-interest of ordinary people.

So far, this has not been Obama's strong suit as a presidential candidate. To his credit, he has certainly talked about gas prices and health insurance. But, as Obama would have told his trainees 20 years ago, conveying concern requires more than saying the right thing; it involves seeing the world from the vantage of those you are trying to win over--and convincing them that your empathy is sincere. When Obama came to South Chicago, he believed in community organizing; within two-and-a-half years--by the time he and Jerry Kellman went for their late October walk around Harvard's campus--he was clearly growing disillusioned. Now, having fashioned a political identity in near-total opposition to the core principles of his one-time profession, Obama's bid for the presidency may come down to this: Is he willing to rediscover--and put into practice--one of the main principles he followed as a twentysomething activist all those years ago?

This article originally ran in the September 10, 2008, issue of the magazine.