Obama as a Community Organizer: Left v. Right

Now that a former community organizer is running for the White House, reporters from both the right (Byron York, from the National Review) and, arguably, the left (the Boston Globe) have visited his former stomping grounds in Chicago, and reported on what folks there think about Barack Obama.

It’s a case of the dog that didn’t bark: everyone seems to like Barack, even though he’s moved on.

York writes (in a blog post, since his formal article is behind a paywall):

I spent some time in Chicago last month talking to the people who
worked with Obama there. Everyone I interviewed, from the man who hired
him, to a fellow organizer, to a pastor allied with Obama, to the women
Obama trained to be "leaders" in his group — they all told me they have
high regard for Obama and support him for president.

The Globe, a real newspaper, even if it does come from a liberal part of the country, digs a little deeper:

…some residents remain upset at Obama’s characterization of the people
in the projects and his role in helping them. He writes unsparingly of
his frustration, for example, with a "plump woman with a pincushion
face who was president of the official tenant council and spent most of
her time protecting the small prerogatives that came with her office: a
stipend and a seat at the yearly banquet; the ability to see that her
daughter got a choice apartment."

That woman in the project known as Altgeld Gardens is apparently no longer alive, but small-mindedness remains. One woman in the project complains that she was organizing before Obama arrives. York points out that Obama’s legacy on the South Side isn’t too visible.

But when it comes to lasting accomplishments, Obama’s list isn’t very
long. His greatest hits seem to have been a successful effort to
convince the city of Chicago to locate a jobs placement office on the
far South Side and his part in a drive to push the city to clean
asbestos out of a housing project in the same area.

Obama’s successor as a community organizer, Johnny Owens, seems to agree, as he told the Globe.

"The problems on the local level were so huge that you could spend the
rest of your life working on those sort of things and have some
marginal success," Owens said. "So he understood that change would take
a much more global approach. I do remember him saying at that time that
the country was politically in a more conservative mode but that things
operated in cycles and that a much more liberal mindset would begin to
develop in the country and he wanted to be prepared to be an effective

Far-sighted, I’d say. The upshot is that reporters from two publications with very different politics visited the South Side to talk to those who knew Obama as a community organizer, and both returned saying he was an extremely likable young man, ambitious, who had real but limited success.

Once again Obama passes the truth test. The Globe concludes:

For all its impact on Obama, Altgeld Gardens today seems far from the kind of success story politicians like to tout.

of buildings are boarded up, with fences surrounding much of the
property. The roads are a potholed mess. Blinking lights illuminate a
series of towers where police have mounted cameras.

Last fall,
Obama returned here for a television interview, walking past the
boarded-up buildings, waving at children, and promising not to forget
the residents as he runs for president. "It was, it is, a tough, tough
place," he said.

Below, a photostitched panorama of Altgeld Gardens at night, courtesy of a Chicago photographer on Flickr who goes by the name Metroblossom.


Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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