Senator Barack Obama’s political ambitions stirred Jackie Kendall, executive director of the Midwest Academy, a Chicago-based training center for community organizers, to crow, “He’s given community organizing a good name.”
This remark was sparked by the fact that Obama entered politics through community organizing. In 1995, one analyst wrote, “He says he is drawn to politics, despite its superficialities, as a means to advance his real passion and calling: community organization….What if a politician were to see his job as that of an organizer, as part teacher and part advocate, one who does not sell voters short but who educates them about the real choices before them? As an elected public official, for instance, I could bring church and community leaders together easier than I could as a community organizer or lawyer.”
Obama has had extensive experience as a community organizer. In the 80s, he was the lead organizer of the Developing Communities Project, a campaign funded by Chicago’s south-side Catholic churches and formed on the organizing principles of Saul Alinsky. He spent another four years building an organization in Roseland and the nearby Altgeld Gardens public housing complex.
ACORN is another community-organizing network with Alinskyian roots. Before going off to law school in the early 90s, Obama directed ACORN’s partner organization, Project Vote. Meeting with ACORN leaders in November, he reminded them of this, saying, “I’ve been fighting alongside ACORN on issues you care about my entire career. Even before I was an elected official, when I ran Project Vote voter registration drive in Illinois, ACORN was smack dab in the middle of it, and we appreciate your work.”
ACORN, an acronym for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, considers itself the nation’s largest community organization. Its Political Action Committee, ACORN Votes, announced its endorsement of Senator Obama’s run for the US presidency in February 2008.
The Problems with Alinskyian Organizing
The community organizing embraced by Senator Obama is an inheritance from Saul Alinsky who founded the Industrial Areas Foundation and wrote about his organizing principles in two books, Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals. Today’s major organizing networks - ACORN, PICO, DART, Gamaliel and, of course, Alinsky’s own Industrial Areas Foundation - owe their structures and their methodologies to Alinsky. The old time organizers who founded these networks were either trained through the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) or by IAF organizers.
Alinsky’s principles are deeply unethical, however. He teaches, for example, that in politics, the ends justify the means. Specifically, he teaches organizers to seek political power by any means that accomplishes that end. Local agendas are used to serve a larger, organizational agenda that is sometimes diametrically opposed to the values of its membership. Faith-based institutions are evangelized into liberationist theory through a variety of mechanisms. These are serious problems for the religious bodies who have become institutional members of the Alinskyian networks.
These Alinskyian principles are manifested in myriad, cynical ways. Obama unabashedly explained how he became “churched” in a 2007 speech:
“It’s around that time [while working as an organizer for the Developing Communities Project (DCP) of the Calumet Community Religious Conference (CCRC) in Chicago] that some pastors I was working with came around and asked if I was a member of a church. “If you’re organizing churches,” they said, “it might be helpful if you went to a church once in a while. And I thought, “I guess that makes sense.”
Complicity of Religious Bodies with Alinskyian Organizing
If, as Alinsky taught, worldly power has two forms - money and people - the organizer’s rule of “follow the money” is to be taken seriously. Where do the Alinskyian networks get their people and money?
The answer is that Alinskyian networks get people and money from religious institutions. Catholic, Jewish, evangelical, mainline Protestant, and a spattering of Muslim congregations have been the primary members of the networks organizing by institution.
An analysis of Catholic Campaign for Human Development grants demonstrates that over the decades, about 33% of its beneficence goes to Alinsky-style, church-based community organizations sporting highly politicized, left-wing agendas. This means the ACORN network receives approximately 5% of the national CCHD annual budget. The Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) network receives approximately 16% of the national CCHD annual budget. These figures, however, don’t include the dues paid by member churches, the money given to network affiliates through local Catholic Campaign for Human Development grants, nor the grants coming into the networks through other Catholic bodies. Nor does it account for the money raised by other religious groups through similar “poverty programs”.
Using donations for the poor to help power-seeking politicians attain their ends is pure Alinskyianism. One of Obama’s Chicago mentors, Gregory Galluzzo - a former Jesuit priest, now married and Executive Director of the Gamaliel community organizing network - was interviewed by a writer to whom he showed the training manual he uses with new organizers. “Galluzzo told me that many new trainees have an aversion to Alinsky’s gritty approach because they come to organizing as idealists rather than realists. But Galluzzo’s manual instructs them to get over these hang-ups. ‘We are not virtuous by not wanting power,’ it says. ‘We are really cowards for not wanting power,’ because ‘power is good’ and ‘powerlessness is evil.
Stephanie Block is a writer and editor of The Pepper, a publication of Los Pequenos de Cristo of New Mexico.