Day Four: Obama’s Civicization

Warning: if you are allergic to descriptions of the twee, self-exploratory, or photos of adorable puppies, please take out your Epi-pens prior to reading this post.)

Today had a lovely start. After a 2 mile run (yep) in the golden light of a (late to the party, but I’ll take what I can get) 65 degree autumn morning, and a stroll through the local farmer’s market (I know) where we purchased two kinds of homemade soup – chicken & peanut stew, and red lentil curry (I know . . .), we sat in a red brick café with the puppies and read the Times while drinking our respective chai and earl grey tea lattes (OK! I know. I’m done. It gets crankier from here on out, so relax.)

I have an idea for a post, which will come tomorrow, of doing a little free association/tangential treasure hunting as a riff off a Times article, and was planning to do that today, after reading this article in a coffee-stained copy of last Wednesday’s front page, and getting curious about Prince William County in Virginia (which I recognize may not have been the main thrust of the article, but it sounds like a fascinating place to learn more about!).

But somehow the day got away from me. Fast forward to 10:00 at night, and you’ll find me sprawled on the sofa in the very flattering strobe light of a hyperactive television in a darkened room, finding myself missing something I never thought I would miss – the grey cloud of Sunday evening that heralds work in the morning. I was snuggled in our oatmeal velvet sofa, under a yarny blanket and two very warm and snoring dogs, with football on, having just eaten a po boy at our neighborhood dive bar. Unwilling to feel cozy and peaceful for more than four minutes, I found myself, by force of habit, flipping the pages back in my mental legal pad, finding the to do list for tomorrow, expecting there to be a list a few pages long, as there has been for the past ten years or so – hell, let’s make it twenty – of things that need to get done, starting first thing in the morning.

But the pad was blank. I couldn’t even find the pad. All that was up in the noggin were some questions about different holiday liqeurs, where I’d left my book, and whether we were going out to dinner tomorrow, or should I buy groceries. Apparently in the absence of frenetic lists, I just think a good deal about what next to put in my face.

The quiet of my mind felt less like a peaceful, open field, and more like a black hole. Where was the matter that was supposed to be stuffed in there? Why was it so quiet, and empty? Was I becoming a pillow?

Normally, I just add on. I add more and more activities, jobs, promises, like cramming boxes into a trash bag – squeezing them, folding them, stepping on them to flatten the sides and make more room – and then I’m surprised when they’ve lost their shape. This has proven to be, and make me, insane. And so, I have finally started the process of jettisoning, in lieu of stuffing.

Of quitting. Of saying no. Of canceling politely, and without caveat.

But suddenly I am left with something wholly unfamiliar – time. Breathing Room. Space to stretch out. A blank pad.

Who knew I was agoraphobic?

In all honesty, I am afraid of pausing. I feel like if I lost momentum I might just stop moving forever and sit on a sofa for the rest of eternity. I wonder if it’s a dirty secret for those who are oft assigned these easy titles – Type A, Perfectionist, Doer, Organizer – that we are all secretly terrified that deep inside we might be profoundly lazy. Where is the line between laziness, leisure, and pausing for breath? When does one become the other? I honestly think that I don’t know.
As I spooned the elbow crook of our sectional sofa and seemed to meld with the cusions, I wondered – what keeps me from congealing? Doing doing doing  has always been my answer. Now I’m starting to try to instill some faith in myself that I am not a ball of dough that needs endless kneading to stay elastic. If I stand still for a moment I won’t freeze in place – I hope.
In an attempt to put the kibosh on this Pottery-Barn-ensconced-existential-crisis, I started to think – what are the ends I want to achieve?

I would like to be someone in the community. The person who makes things happen, who can connect you to the right resources; who has organized events in the community that change the tone and relationships in the neighborhood; who has worked to make dark parts of the neighborhood light, and bring attention to the good, wherever it may be. I desire authority, so that I have the power to make changes – I have experienced again and again in my work in education the maddening impotence of being given the responsibility to make changes, without being given the authority to make decisions. I want both.

I found myself coming back to this idea of community a lot – what does working in a community mean and look like? Community liason? Community developer? Community organizer? Local politician? I started googling all of thees terms, trying to figure out just what these various people actually did. What kinds of work were people doing that I have never even heard about until now?

I found this article from 2008, right around the last election, about Obama’s work as a community organizer – it’s by Byron Young, titled, quite cryptically, “What Did Obama Do As A Community Organizer?(When I saw it was published in the National Review – with which I’m unfamiliar – I had some hunch that it was a conservative publication, for some reason – not sure why I thought that, but curious to learn more – and it turns out I was right, so I’m going to dedicate a future post to exploring it, I think.)

Anyway,  I I found it edifying in terms of giving me a better sense of what Obama actually did, but in particular there were a few passages that really hit home for me. Let me share them:

Audiences understand when he mentions his years as an Illinois state legislator, or his brief tenure in the U.S. Senate. But a community organizer? What’s that? Even Obama didn’t know when he first gave it a try back in 1985. “When classmates in college asked me just what it was that a community organizer did, I couldn’t answer them directly,” Obama wrote in his memoir,Dreams from My Father. “Instead, I’d pronounce on the need for change. . . Change won’t come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilized grass roots.”

Kellman had to sell Obama to the leaders. “Jerry introduces Barack, and Barack is so young, it’s like, ‘Oh my God,’” Loretta Augustine-Herron remembered. Obama was obviously smart, and he wanted to be an organizer, but he was, in fact, quite young (24) and he didn’t actually know much about the job. Despite those drawbacks, he seemed to work some sort of magic on the leaders. “He had a sensitivity I have never seen in anybody else to this day,” Augustine-Herron told me. “He understood.” The women were sold. “He didn’t have experience,” Augustine-Herron said. “But he had a sensitivity that allowed us to believe that he could do the job.” So Obama it was.

New to Chicago, Obama set about conducting dozens of one-on-ones, that is, individual interviews with South Side residents in which he tried to discover which issues were most important to them. “You have to understand a person’s self-interest — that’s Alinsky’s terminology,” Mike Kruglik, an organizer who worked with Kellman and Obama, told me. “What’s happened to that person in his or her life? Where are they going? Why are they going there? What are they really passionate about?”

Obama got the ministers involved in several projects, without great success. There was a push to get more city money for South Side parks after the Justice Department told the Chicago Park District it had to spend more on minority neighborhoods. There were plans for after-school programs, and job retraining for adults. But if you ask Obama’s fellow organizers what his most significant accomplishments were, they point to two ventures: the expansion of a city summer-job program for South Side teenagers and the removal of asbestos from one of the area’s oldest housing projects. Those, they say, were his biggest victories.

My biggest take-aways from this article were two-fold. One was about Obama. One was about myself. In terms of the former, this article really gave me a picture of what Obama’s Civicization started off as – feeling his own potential to make inroads through the sensitivity of his person, his ability to listen, his ability to empower others to mobilize, his quiet tenacity that shriveled at overt confrontation – not out of weakness, but out of distaste. All things I feel I saw throughout the election experience this year, and could trace through his first four years as well.

The take-aways for myself were also profound. Obama didn’t know how to describe what he was doing – just that he felt a need to be the one to put the bulb of change into the earth, to help it grow into grass. He wasn’t all that successful in the majority of his initiatives; this didn’t make them crappy or insignificant, or make him lazy or ineffectual – they just didn’t work. Interviewing – something I sound like a broken record about, whether I’m talking to colleagues about teacher education, or discussing ways to drum up more membership with the members of the Civic Association I belong to  – works. When you start by listening to what people want and need, you’re going to do a better job of giving them what they want and need. Sounds duh, but so many people don’t do this.

So, to summarize Obama’s Civicization:

  • Even if you’re not sure how to describe what  you’re doing, focus on why you’re doing it.
  • Some projects sound like great ideas but won’t work, and this happens to everyone.
  • Start with the people you are serving – they will tell & teach you how to serve them.

What other ideas or lessons did you glean from this article, or from Obama’s civic track record?

What are your thoughts about how to start on a path towards achieving the ends I outlined above?

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2 thoughts on “Day Four: Obama’s Civicization

  1. I feel like this article really hit home with me. As you well know, I have plans to work in prison rehabilitation–which always leads to the question, “but what does that MEAN?” I can never answer it. It’s not really something I can put into words, though I got to experience a sliver of it over the last summer.

    The idea of focusing on the why, not the what, is so, so fitting. I never really considered that. If you’d ask me why (somehow, nobody ever does, unless it’s in the context of “good god, why prisoners?!”), I think I could list a million and two reasons. But the what is always the issue.

    And I think this goes far beyond myself; being a college student, there are plenty of people I associate with who don’t have a name for what they’re doing, but are forging ahead in doing it anyway. For so many of us who aren’t following the carved-out paths of doctors, or engineers, or other careers that tend to have a fairly clear laid plan of the steps that need to be taken and the positions that exist (not that this is a bad thing, I wish I had that!), it can be extremely difficult to explain the draw of our interest. We strive to not fill old positions, but to create new ones and bring new ideas and solutions, and that means a job title on a resume doesn’t always mean much.

    There’s no real set way to approach getting “there” (wherever “there” may be), but I think ultimately, it’s important to put 110% into whatever paths and choices I make. I know I have a pretty difficult road ahead, but I don’t think you can get anywhere without a strong belief in what you want to achieve.

  2. First off, as a fellow type A, you won’t stop forever when you pause, I promise. Occasionally you will wonder if you actually just spent two solid weeks catching up on nine years of Scrubs on Netflix Instant, but then you just have to believe that your brain really needed that down time to rejuvenate and come up with the next fabulous project.

    As for Obama – I too am inspired by his story. He wasn’t born into or groomed for the Presidency. He wasn’t rich. He was a hard working, smart, wonkish guy, drawn to something that spoke to his core purpose, even if he couldn’t articulate the work he was doing OR what his purpose was. It just reaffirms the way that I follow my gut, and trust that what I’m doing will work out just fine. I don’t know anybody in the world – and I’ve looked in lots of odd corners – that has done what I aim to do. So I look up to people like Obama, Kate Bornstein, and Justin Vivian Bond, to name just a few, that make their own lives on their own terms and own rules, and look radically different, on most or all levels, than most people who are occupying or have occupied the same spaces as them.

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