The most sweeping change can begin with the simplest connections.
On my bedside table sits This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein. Unfortunately, nothing seems to be changing at all—the book has been sitting there for 6 months unread. I feel quite guilty about it. Add it to the list of things I feel I need to do. I should spend more time with my children. I’m out of shape and should exercise more. I need to catch up with my friends. And since I started writing my book The Size of Others’ Burdens, I have done almost nothing to help others in my community. This is embarrassing. I’ve written a book that shows how we might move past our dilemmas and make a difference in our own neighborhoods and I’m stuck either in my house or the Ivory Tower. But I am caught up on Game of Thrones.
The kind of social growth that John Dewey and Robert Putnam wrote about is only possible through making reciprocal relations.
What is wrong with me? I (sadly) prove my own point made in The Size of Others’ Burdens. Many of us are stuck, not sure how to move forward in the face of so many demands made on us by society. We have good intentions but can’t turn them into action. Well, I’ve resolved that with the publication of my book, I need to make some sort of effort. What will I do? How might I take a series of somewhat general conclusions and imperatives from my book like “Don’t get comfortable!” and turn them into real action?
Sometimes you have to start small. Awhile back I created a book club at my local pub. Through word of mouth the club has grown to more than a dozen members, with most people coming from within a few blocks. By connecting with my neighbors I’m learning about my community. It feels good, with the club acting as a source of social sustenance.
Through the club, I learned about a neighborhood clean up next month. I heard details of a new and controversial development down the street. And I found out about a plant sale at the local church. It’s simple bulletins like these, unassuming opportunities for connection and knowledge-sharing, that foster community—and even, perhaps, a platform for social mobilization, if one is needed.
This is how Jane Addams was successful in 19th century Chicago—she connected with others on what she called “the thronged and common road.” This is not just about having a good time with some new friends. The kind of social growth that John Dewey and Robert Putnam wrote about is only possible through making reciprocal relations. And these relations are the backbone of democracy.
Our current president learned this crucial lesson on his way to the White House—though at the time, he likely couldn’t have fathomed that he was on his way there. In the mid-80s, two years out of college, Obama moved to Chicago—an entirely new city to him—to work with a local church-based group, the Calumet Community Religious Conference (CCRC), as a community organizer.
The organization was created to tend to the symptoms of economic decline and the erosion of neighborhoods in the bi-state region of Indiana and Illinois. In the wake of the industrial flight—and by extension, job flight—from the city, local communities were left in the lurch. The Developing Communities Project (DCP), an initiative of the CCRC, was created to fill the institutional social welfare gap.
At the beginning of his tenure with the DCP, Obama was encouraged to get out into the community and familiarize himself with Chicago’s neighborhoods. The city was known to be suspicious of outsiders; writers on Chicago organizing and politics often invoke the famous line, “We don’t want nobody nobody sent” to convey the Chicago attitude. If Obama were to have an impact, he would have to get acquainted with the community.
Each community has unique problems, so organization must necessarily begin with investigation. What are the community’s needs? What is its capacity? Who might be able to lead?
This distrust was a problem. To overcome it, Obama went door-to-door to interface directly with people who lived in the neighborhood, as well as ministers who might convince their parishes to join the DCP. The one-on-one interviews with community members were an extensive project, one for which Obama revealed a particular knack.
This was textbook Saul Alinsky organizing. Alinsky—who’d created the Back of the Yards Council to organize the Union Stock Yards made infamous in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle—had brought people together to make significant change in their neighborhood. He summarized his method in a book, Rules for Radicals—which Obama had read. In it he made the case for developing power relations with the goal of creating a kind of “power to” in each community. But each community has unique problems, so organization, Alinsky argued, must necessarily begin with investigation. What are the community’s needs? What is its capacity? Who might be able to lead?
To answer these questions, Obama and fellow colleagues with the DCP met with people each day, talking about their views of the community. They would ask the residents to define their challenges, rather than make a clumsy attempt at an outsider’s diagnosis.
This strategy led to results. It earned champions, like Reverend Alvin Love—future president of DCP—who was initially lured in by the unassuming nature of Obama’s approach. This open dialogue also helped Obama convince the Mayor’s Office of Employment and Training (MET) to start an office in the economically depressed South Side, where it opened a program for children and connected locals with job training they would need to get good employment. After hearing stories from multiple residents of asbestos in public housing buildings, Obama and the DCP lobbied the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) to address the issue, eventually pressuring the CHA to launch an $8.9-million asbestos abatement program.
These, among other sweeping community reforms the DCP pushed for, all began at the grassroots level: people talking to people. Much like my book club. Much like Jane Addams’ guiding strategy in the establishment of Chicago’s Hull-House: a project that would forever change the character of American social work.
Of course, Obama, like Addams decades before him, made the gradual transition from local community organizing to the bigger pond of politics. Rather than continue in their initial community both revised and scaled up their efforts. In the course of this transition, Obama (and Addams) undoubtedly left something behind.
With less than two years left to go in his final term, the president is in an unenviable situation. He is hamstrung by a Republican Congress gearing up for the 2016 Election. He is not respected in many quarters of the country. He has low approval ratings. In many quarters, he has already been written-off as we turn to speculation of who will next take his seat in the White House. Meanwhile, his supporters clamor for him to deliver on the promises of his campaigns. All of this makes for a heavy burden. What will he do with his time left in office? What can he do? (This situation is a lot more serious than the unread Klein book sitting by my bed.)
Perhaps in the twilight of his administration it would behoove Obama to think small again, or leastways, think local. Allow me to briefly indulge in a thought experiment: what if, in his final term, the president got out of the White House. Literally.
What if he dotted the map with presidential residences—renting or buying out spaces in several of America’s cities, and in a few rural towns, too. Imagine them as modern day Hull-Houses, with funding and programs that continue on when the President goes to the next destination. Live in each one for a short time, interacting with neighbors, listening to them, inspiring them, and growing together. These houses would need to be open to the neighborhood. Sure, there are security issues but I am sure the Secret Service can figure it out. I’ve seen them in action and they are good.
Get the President out of Washington! With this kind of move President Obama might be able to deliver (finally) on his most celebrated campaign slogans: “Change” and “Forward.” It would redefine what it means to be a president in transition. Imagine the children in Brooklyn who would be inspired by seeing President Obama participate in a neighborhood clean up around the corner from his house. Or the unemployed workers invigorated by Obama's presence at the local office of a jobs initiative in Milwaukee. Or the schoolteacher revitalized by his participation in a school assembly.
The President doesn’t need Congress to be a leader in community development. He can do it by relying on America’s neighborhoods, and in the process reclaim the term “community organizer.”
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Schneiderhan's biographical comparison of Jane Addams and Barack Obama illustrates how little has changed regarding the difficulties of community building.