Community Organizers have received much press recently. We have long known that Barack Obama was a community organizer in Chicago in between college and law school. What did Obama do as a community organizer? Well, what does any community organizer do? Most people just aren’t sure, but it did really seem to matter all that much.
That was before September 3, 2008 when Sarah Palin, Governor of Alaska, addressed the Republican National Convention, accepting nomination as the vice-presidential nominee. During her 40-minute speech, Palin responded to some of the criticisms of the Obama camp who had ridiculed her experience as a small town mayor. She said, “Being mayor of a small town is sorta like being a community organizer – only with real responsibilities.”
It was a good line that struck at the nebulous nature of the task of organizing communities for progress. It has obviously paid dividends already with supporters who are leery of social reformers and workers. Certainly, she has struck a chord with many in red states, where even the largest cities do not have a social structure that includes community organizers.
The Dems struck back pretty hard, though. There was outrage over the demeaning of a system that is important to many of the poorest neighborhoods in America. In fact, a counter line has been developed. “Jesus was a community organizer. Pontius Pilate was a governor.” That’s a good line, too.
Currently, I am in the midst of reading for our Anthropology class. Most of it is good stuff. One of the books is called How America Hears the Gospel. In it, the author lines out a short history of America and how that history has formed us as a people with particular ideas, goals, and assumptions. Earlier today, I was reading a section on the first settlers of America. Reading the words of the Puritan leaders and the words of John Winthrop is interesting. In the context of leaders of a group of people who had no idea what tomorrow would hold and who were unsure of the path before them, these leaders sounded like….well….they sounded like community organizers.
“We must not content ourselves with usual ordinary means. Whatsoever we did or ought to have done when we lived in England, the same must we do, and more also where we go…” stated Winthrop while still en route to Massachusetts. Later, Winthrop would become the “governor” of Massachusetts. What was the job of the governor? Well, there were 400 settlers who lacked direction, connection, and place in this new world. Winthrop’s job as governor would have been to find a system that would help the settlers and give them a way forward.
It sounds like John Winthrop, and probably many of the founders of America, could identify with the work of a community organizer.