CHICAGO — In the 1980s, a handful of African-American community organizers worked on Chicago's South Side. When veteran organizer Harold Lucas heard there was a new one, he figured he had better check him out.
Lucas weaved through hundreds of people who had gathered at the Lilydale First Baptist Church to pressure government officials to clean polluted local water. Lucas sidled up to the skinny kid with big ears who was poring over a clipboard.
Lucas didn't say a word, but peered at the young man's clipboard. On it he saw speakers' names, stick-figure drawings, scripts of speeches and backup speakers and scripts in case people froze.
"He was literally orchestrating the meeting from a clipboard in the back of the room," said Lucas, 65, who now runs a preservation tourism business in a historic downtown area called Bronzeville. "I said to myself: Either I don't know nothing about community organizing, or this kid is brilliant."
The kid was Barack Obama, a 24-year-old outsider from Hawaii who arrived in Chicago's South Side in 1985 with a political science degree from Columbia University. Obama was there to run a small church-based group created to help those with no political voice pressure government to address dire poverty and pollution that defined a public housing project.
Obama has often said in speeches, and in his book, that he got more out of his three years in community organizing than the neighborhoods got out of him. Indeed, Obama's victories on Chicago's South Side were modest, but he has drawn heavily on what he learned as a community organizer to create, in some ways, a new kind of presidential campaign.
His much-lauded and record-shattering fundraising operation ($600-million so far) relies heavily on tapping an expanse of small givers, a strategy often used by community groups to raise money. And his widespread national campaign is run by staff members who were trained in the ways of community outreach by the same Chicago organizers Obama worked for years ago.
Several Republicans, most notably vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, poked fun at Obama's community organizing during the party's national convention. Since then, Sen. John McCain's campaign has questioned Obama's ties to Chicago organizers and his work as an attorney for one of the nation's largest, most successful (and sometimes controversial) community organizations, ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.
But those who knew Obama during his organizing years say his experience on Chicago's South Side helped him figure out what he wanted to do with his life, choosing public service over fiction writing. It led him to law school and down a path to the Democratic Party's nomination for president.
After graduating from Columbia, Obama couldn't find an organizing job right away, so he worked as a researcher for a consulting house for a year in New York.
Obama wished he could have been a civil rights organizer, but he was nearly two decades too late. So he chased community organizing jobs.
Community organizing draws its roots from the labor union movement. What labor unions did for the workplace, community organizers aimed to do for neighborhoods. The idea is to gather people who don't have access to power and money, and with sheer numbers create influence to attack problems as broad as poverty or as narrow as installing sewer hookups.
Obama's mentors learned the methods of Saul Alinsky, the Chicago father of community organizing and well-known agitator from the 1930s through the 1970s. But Obama didn't care for Alinsky's more confrontational approach.
"Barack was willing to challenge power, but he was very reticent to use any personal confrontation," said Jerry Kellman, who in 1985 was looking for someone to run a new community organization for him on the South Side. "Civility was and is very important to him."
When Kellman got Obama's resume, via a costly ad in the New York Times, he had already interviewed and rejected a number of applicants. He needed someone willing to work for next-to-nothing. (Starting salary was $10,000 a year with a $2,000 bonus for a car, although the salary would increase over time.) But he also needed someone whose idealism wouldn't dissolve with a first, second or third setback.
"People burn out with frustration … especially people who had been very successful academically. Suddenly they'd meet something they couldn't succeed at, and they'd not only fail, they'd unravel emotionally," said Kellman, 58, who left community organizing to go to divinity school and now works as a counselor for Catholic churches on Chicago's North Side.
At the time, Kellman was also looking to hire an African-American person.
Kellman's group was comprised mostly of suburban white Catholic churches that had just started an offshoot called the Developing Communities Project, aimed at helping impoverished, and largely African-American, neighborhoods on the South Side. But Kellman and his colleagues were having trouble making connections with those churches.
Kellman flew to New York, a trip initially scheduled to visit his parents in Manhattan, and interviewed Obama face-to-face and offered him the job on the spot. Obama accepted.
Most of the South Side Chicago residents who first met Obama were struck by his youth.
"My first impression was: He was very young. Is he even going to be up to this task?" said Loretta Augustine-Herron, a Developing Communities Project board member whose own son was about the same age as Obama.
But Obama quickly won the board over.
"He seemed to be able to understand what we were up against. He listened. And some of the things he didn't understand, he said he didn't understand," Augustine-Herron said. "We liked that."
Obama spent most of his time with church leaders and residents throughout the South Side, talking and interviewing them to discover their needs and "self-interests." He was looking for a common thread, a topic he could get them to rally around and push for change.
This is the bread-and-butter work of community organizing that must be done before the more dramatic events of rallies and marches. It also was the part of the job Obama enjoyed. He liked hearing people's stories, and he liked writing them up, said Kellman and organizer Mike Kruglik, who also worked with Obama.
Obama would turn in field reports that read like stories. At the time, he also was writing fiction in his free time and was weighing a future as a writer.
"Understanding story narratives was very key," Kellman said. "He was already inclined to narratives, so he was very good at that."
In setting up his presidential campaign, Obama turned to these same techniques. Kruglik spent countless weekends over the 2007 primary season training campaign workers and volunteers how to be community organizers.
"He'd tell volunteers, 'Don't do all the talking. Listen to people. Ask questions. If they tell you they don't support Obama, ask them why. It can help us be more responsive,' " said Kruglik, 66, a blunt-spoken, gruff man who works in downtown Chicago for the Gamaliel Foundation, a community organizing network.
Obama learned about poverty at a public housing project called Altgeld Gardens, which lies as far South as Chicago's borders stretch. The community, built on a landfill, was created for returning African-American war veterans in 1945. The 1,500 two-story red brick homes look more like old-style military barracks than row houses.
The public housing community could not be more isolated. It's a few miles from any other South Side neighborhood in an area dotted with train tracks, power lines, aged industrial buildings and a rusting metal bridge. It's sandwiched between Interstate 94 and a polluted Calumet River. A rank-smelling water sewage treatment plant also graces its borders. Grassy, treeless hills that tower above the community are growing landfills.
The pollution is so concentrated that it attracts toxic tours by out-of-state university research groups, say residents like Cheryl Johnson, who runs People for Community Recovery, an environmental activist group based at Altgeld Gardens that her mother, Hazel Johnson, started in the 1970s.
Many children who live at Altgeld Gardens wheeze with asthma. And many who have lived there lost relatives to cancer. Johnson's father died of lung cancer. Augustine-Herron, who lived there in the 1960s, lost a 7-year-old daughter to cancer.
Yet, Obama worked in Altgeld Gardens with an unbridled sense of optimism, even when he could count few victories.
"Altgeld is the wildest place you had ever seen," said the Rev. Michael Evans, who helped run the Developing Communities Project, right after Obama left. "But Obama came out there and said, 'No, this is good. We can do something with this.' "
Often just getting residents to show up for meetings to talk about problems at the local church basement could be a challenge.
"The people are overwhelmed with their own problems," Kruglik said, "and at the same time, you're encouraging them to think of a better life and better way that they can create to get out of their problems."
Obama had a few victories. As factories closed, the South Side had become populated with many unemployed factory workers, and Obama organized Altgeld Gardens residents to pressure the Mayor's Office of Employment and Training to open a new intake center. It ended up opening in nearby Roseland.
He also helped organize Altgeld Gardens residents to meet with public officials and pressure the city to remove asbestos insulation from pipes. The city didn't start removing the asbestos until after Obama left Chicago. And there's some debate as to how much credit Obama deserves for the accomplishment, which he writes about extensively in his memoir.
Cheryl Johnson said her mother, Hazel Johnson, had started pushing to clean up asbestos at Altgeld Gardens years before Obama came to town. Hazel Johnson's environmental work has been recognized by President Bill Clinton and the first President Bush.
"She knew the problem. She has lived through it and seen it. She doesn't want any one person taking the credit," Cheryl Johnson, 47, said of her mother.
No one was surprised when Obama left for law school.
Kellman said Obama realized the limits of community organizing when it comes to addressing larger, systematic problems like economic issues or racism.
"Frankly, I was always on the lookout to see if he'd be gone, he had a lot of opportunities," Kellman said. "Something had to happen. He either had to fail or succeed in order to leave. And he succeeded pretty well, and that's why he left. By succeeding, he was able to see the limitations of what could be expectations."
But Kruglik sees Obama's departure differently.
Kruglik says that on the presidential campaign trail, Obama often talks about the "world as it is and the world as it should be," and how he's fighting to make the world as it "should be."
Obama pulled that phrase straight out of community organizing training, Kruglik says. He sees Obama's campaign, and its community organizing tactics, as an experiment for an Obama presidency. But he adds, there's still a place for organizers to hold Obama accountable.
"Obama is combining the vision of a better world with the practicality and reality of community organizing that it takes to get that better world," he said.
Staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
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