Community organizers protest mocking by GOP speakers

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 4, 2008 

ST. PAUL, Minn. — New York resident Elana Shneyer said she watched with anger and anguish as her former mayor, Rudy Giuliani, and Sarah Palin mocked Barack Obama's experience as a community organizer, reducing the job to little more than a punch line in their convention speeches.

"I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a 'community organizer,' except that you have actual responsibilities," Palin said in her convention speech.

Giuliani took a jab at Obama earlier Wednesday evening, saying that his community organizing work might be "the first problem of his resume."

"We're the Rodney Dangerfields," said Richard Green, the director of Brooklyn, N.Y., Crown Heights Youth Collective. "Crime goes down, drug use goes down, and we never get credit for our work. After all, community organizers don't do real work, they don't have any real expenses, and they're not real people."

Green, however, remembers getting a public pat on the back for his work from Giuliani.

In his book "Leadership," Giuliani praised Green for working with City Hall and Jewish community organizers for keeping the 1994 Brooklyn West Indian-American Day Parade, which ran through a racially torn Crown Heights neighborhood.

"They forged a compromise on the route and the schedule, then we spent the summer meeting with representatives from both sides and selling the compromise to both communities," Giuliani wrote of the community organizers. "It all culminated in a party at Gracie Mansion at which everyone involved attended to prepare for the parade."

Other community organizers across the country bristled at Giuliani's and Palin's speeches, saying that they showed little respect for organizers and little knowledge of the contributions of community organizers in the civil rights and women's movements.

"I thought they were uninformed and insulting to community organizers," said Shneyer, an organizer for Brooklyn's Pratt Area Community Council, a non-profit group that focuses on affordable housing, development and voter education. "I was disappointed and surprised."

"I was shocked the way they were disparaging honorable work," said Michael Leo Owens, an Emory University political science professor who specializes in urban politics and community building. "Martin Luther King Jr. was a community organizer, and all the other foot soldiers in the civil rights movement were community organizers. In every decade, we can point to community organizers. We can go biblical and say Moses was a community organizer."

The Center for Community Change, an umbrella group of 300 grassroots organizations, called Palin's remarks insensitive.

"When Sarah Palin demeaned community organizing, she didn't attack another candidate," the group said in a written statement. "She attacked an American tradition — one that has helped everyday Americans engage with the political process and make a difference in their lives and the lives of their neighbors."

In arguing that Obama lacked the credentials to be president, Giuliani and Palin compared the Democratic presidential candidate's job as a community organizer in Chicago to the Republican vice presidential candidate's job as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska.

Obama worked as a community organizer from 1985 to 1988 for a church-funded group in Chicago's South Side. His focus was organizing workers in African-American neighborhoods displaced by steel mill closings. That included outreach to politicians and pressing for things such as job training, childcare and public safety.

Ahmad Daniels, a longtime Charlotte, N.C., community organizer, said that trying to help communities that feel hopeless or helpless is "more difficult that running a big state like Alaska."

"To minimize Barack's work in the community is almost sacrilegious," he said. "She forgets the history of the United States — people touching hands, having a cup of coffee and talking about their visions."

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