Community organizers have deep roots in democracy
The title may be nebulous, but the job of helping citizens bring
about change -- once held by Democratic presidential nominee
Barack Obama -- is 'as American as apple pie.'
By Richard Fausset
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
September 18, 2008
DETROIT — The elementary school moms didn't ask a lot of questions
about this man Bill. They were too eager to tell him -- to tell
anybody -- about the loose and snarling pit bulls,
the gun-toting gangsters, and the dogcatchers and police who always
seemed to come too late.
The principal, Helena Lazo, had introduced him simply: "Bill nos
va a ayudar." Bill is going to help us.
When Bill O'Brien faced the five women at Roberto Clemente Learning
Academy, he encouraged them to enumerate the problems plaguing their
Southwest Detroit neighborhood. He propped an elbow on a table and
When they had finished, he asked, with an impish grin: "So what else
do kids do after school around here, besides shoot guns and let dogs
loose on you?"
O'Brien, 60, stands out in this tough industrial neighborhood of
working-class blacks, Appalachian whites and Latino immigrants. He
is balding and tall, with the pinkish hue of an Irishman who has
spent too much time in the sun. This morning, his open-collared
dress shirt was tucked into a pair of gray slacks. He looked like a
priest, perhaps, or a kindly English teacher.
He has, in fact, been both of those things, but for the last 30
years O'Brien has mostly been a professional community organizer. As
job titles go, he is aware it is a nebulous one: For years, he said,
he struggled to explain his work to his own mother.
These days, however, it isn't just his mother who is asking. Because
Barack Obama spent a few years after college as a community
organizer, the nation is weighing whether this little-understood job
is a suitable prelude to the presidency.
Obama, the Democratic nominee, holds up his three years of
organizing on Chicago's South Side, along with his stints in the
U.S. Senate and Illinois Legislature, as proof of his commitment to
Republicans have taken a harsher view: At the GOP convention this
month, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani drew a big laugh by
simply uttering the phrase "community organizer" -- then adding,
after a stand-up comedian's pause, "What?"
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the GOP vice presidential nominee and
former mayor of Wasilla, said that a small-town mayor is "sort of
like a community organizer, except that you have actual
Some liberals contended that the attacks carried racial undertones
because Obama, like many other community organizers, worked largely
with poor minorities.
The confusion over the role of community organizers may stem from
the fact that, by their own admission, anyone can qualify to be one,
so long as they take a lead in motivating people to bring about
change. The title could apply to the leaders of the Boston Tea Party
or to modern-day antiabortion protesters.
Robert Fisher, a professor of social work at the University of
Connecticut, argues that organizing, with its focus on helping
citizens make their voices heard, is "as American as apple pie."
But O'Brien's style of organizing, like Obama's, also belongs to a
specific tradition, one closely allied with the labor movement, the
civil rights struggle and Christian peace and justice movements.
Both Obama and O'Brien worked for a time for nonprofits aligned with
the Gamaliel Foundation, a group inspired by the work of Saul
Alinsky, who organized poor neighborhoods around the Chicago
stockyards in the 1930s. This month in the National Review, writer
Stanley Kurtz cited Obama's organizing work as a "connection with
the world of far-Left radicalism."
O'Brien winces at the idea that his is partisan work. The problems
he tries to solve, he says, are practical.
Like the problems the mothers were having on the streets around the
Roberto Clemente school. Everybody was complaining at the parents'
meetings, they told him, but nothing was getting done.
"OK. Let's imagine the dogcatcher or the City Council person comes
to your parents' meeting," O'Brien said, leaning casually in his
chair. "You could demand something of him not on the telephone but
in front of 100 people."
Audrey Troyer, 43, cocked an eyebrow. "You know what they'd tell
us?" she said. "That they are short-handed."
"Do you believe it?" O'Brien asked.
The group agreed there were probably enough dogcatchers but it was
more likely they were in the neighborhoods that complained louder.
The squeaky wheel gets the grease, O'Brien told the women. They
needed to squeak.
O'Brien gently suggested the next stage of the plan: Let the moms go
talk to five equally ticked-off friends and persuade them to attend
a meeting the next week. There, they could plan an even bigger
And maybe they could pressure public officials to show up at that
bigger meeting. Maybe the parents could force them to promise more
cops, more animal control. It is a tactic common to the Alinsky
organizing style, one also used by Obama: Hold a big meeting and
extract public promises -- the way to organize power for people who
can't afford campaign donations.
The women left the room energized and chatty, even though all they
had done was agree to another meeting. Later, O'Brien was asked if
he'd seen the joke circulating on the Internet: What's the
difference between a "community organizer" and a Chihuahua? The
Chihuahua will eventually shut up.
O'Brien laughed. Organizing, he said, involves a lot of talking, a
lot of meeting. All that organizers usually have, he said, is talk
-- the reason he thinks the job is tougher than being a mayor.
"We start with no money, we start with no relationships, we start
with nothing," he said. "You have to be a teacher, you have to be a
strategist, you have to be a politician. . . . But you don't have
any power backing you up."
On this day, O'Brien would have four meetings -- including those
with another school principal, the producer of a benefit concert,
and the organizers of an anti-crime summit in his own neighborhood,
a few miles north. At the end of the day, he hadn't achieved much
more than promises to hold more meetings.
But O'Brien was not dismayed. He had built a big movement before on
little more than talk.
He first came to Southwest Detroit in 1991 to work for Most Holy
Redeemer, the big neo-Renaissance Catholic church built for the
German and Irish factory workers of another era. But those factories
were closing, many whites had fled, and the neighborhood was
fraying. Drugs and gangs were spreading, and a new wave of Latinos
had moved in, their language and culture estranging them from the
O'Brien had left the priesthood eight years earlier. As a Jesuit, he
had taught high school. He also had done a little organizing,
believing it was a different way of doing God's work. A product of
the '60s, his heroes were people like Martin Luther King Jr. and the
"Look," he said. "If somebody were to tell me tomorrow that there is
no God, I'd still do this work. Because it's fun."
In Southwest, he began by asking the same question he asked the
women at the school: What would you like to see fixed?
At first, he took on small quality-of-life projects. Touring the
neighborhood now in his beat-up Toyota Camry, he can still point
them out with pride.
There was the concrete sound barrier walling off the freeway from a
string of modest backyards. It didn't exist until he sent dozens of
locals to the state Capitol to complain.
There was the cheerful park across the street from the Waterfall
Missionary Baptist Church, with its fancy playground equipment. It
had been a ratty place until he threatened to bus the Baptists
downtown to embarrass the parks department.
There were the corner bodegas, which he had pressured into covering
up their porn magazines and ending the sale of drug paraphernalia.
He also pointed out the work yet to be done, pulling the Camry up to
a mound of trash that had built up in an empty lot near Cesar Chavez
High School. The principal had already complained to him.
"You see?" he said, gesturing toward an old sofa among the weeds.
"This is what the students walk by every day."
By 1994, O'Brien had built a coalition of more than 20 churches,
which later grew into a larger regional group called MOSES, a
Gamaliel-affiliated group that still exists.
His agenda became more ambitious: In 1994, his group pressured
then-Mayor Dennis Archer to tear down hundreds of abandoned houses.
In 1996, they convinced President Clinton's drug czar, Barry
McCaffrey, to designate Greater Detroit a "high-intensity drug
trafficking area," which unlocked millions in federal funds to fight
the drug war.
His chief tactic was the big, Alinsky-style meeting. It was a kind
of theater, he said, that could even annoy the elected officials who
generally shared his goals. Sometimes they complained that his
mau-mauing fouled up sensitive coalition building.
Paul Tait, executive director of the Southeast Michigan Council of
Governments, remembers watching colleagues promise MOSES they'd do
more about public transportation issues -- then never make good on
Many of those promises, Tait said, could only have been fulfilled by
asking voters to tax themselves for more buses and trains. Selling
such an idea, he said, often requires more than a boisterous
"Those tactics, with some issues, work fine," Tait said. "But more
complicated challenges that we have for public policy require
different tools in the toolbox."
In 2003, O'Brien went to work directly for the Gamaliel Foundation,
coordinating the work of organizers in five states. But he
eventually burned out on the bureaucracy. He missed the streets.
In May, he was hired by a local nonprofit, Southwest Solutions, to
start over again. The agency was founded in 1979 with a focus on
mental health but has since taken on the more expansive goal of
rebuilding the community. It hired O'Brien to address the plant
closings and drug epidemics, the dropout rates and the dearth of
Back on the streets of Southwest, O'Brien noticed that the factory
jobs were even scarcer -- now the jobs, especially for Latinos, were
in construction and restaurants. A generation of black factory
workers were dying off; their children had moved away, and now their
houses were full of renters with tenuous ties to the neighborhood.
The gangs he had fought so hard to get rid of seemed to be
experiencing a resurgence.
O'Brien's work hasn't made him rich; he said he makes about as much
as an assistant high school principal. He considers the job a
calling. His wife is also a community organizer.
"This is what we do," he said. "This is what I do."
It was late afternoon, and O'Brien was hanging around in the halls
of another public school, Phoenix Academy. It was back-to-school
night, and O'Brien was hoping the principal, Norma Hernandez, would
introduce him to some motivated parents.
But the parents were too busy meeting teachers. O'Brien found
himself in the cafeteria, talking to four sophomores who, as it
turned out, had been dabbling in grass-roots organizing themselves.
Last year, the students had received a small grant to start a
neighborhood website. Now, said 15-year-old Danyell Daniels, they
were trying to organize clubs representing each micro-neighborhood.
"There used to be a lot of block clubs around here," O'Brien told
"Yeah," Danyell responded. "That's what my mom said."
"But how do you work toward that?" O'Brien asked.
The students kicked around a few ideas with the man with the
puzzling job. They told him their plans would be refined at their
O'Brien made a point of inviting himself to it.