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Community Organizers More Valuable Than Palin Thinks

Stan Simpson

September 06, 2008

Sarah Palin, the new it girl in American politics, was doing what a vice presidential candidate is supposed to do savaging the top of the opposing ticket.

But in mocking Barack Obama's lack of executive experience, Alaska's socially conservative governor also revealed a startling disdain for the lifeblood that changes public policy "community organizers." She was dismissive of their roles in spurring change.

In comparing her experience to Obama's, Palin in her 18th month as governor also noted her stint as mayor of tiny Mayberry RFD, also known as Wasilla.

"I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer except that you have actual responsibilities," she said sarcastically in her much-anticipated address to the Republican National Convention Wednesday.

The line got laughs from the largely homogenous audience in Minnesota. But it was misguided in its assumptions.

The good community organizers exhibit leadership skills and can persuasively communicate a message, frame an argument, raise money and rally disparate interests into supporting change.

Those duties can be great springboards for public office because they teach the importance of preparation, communication and accountability.

Eddie Perez is mayor of Connecticut's capital city. Marie Kirkley-Bey, Ken Green and Art Feltman are Hartford state representatives. The late Paul Wellstone of Minnesota was a senator. Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa. All earned their chops as community organizers, who usually flourish in urban or rural areas where a high number of the disenfranchised are.

"The general attitude of a lot of people, not just Palin, is that community organizing is some hobby," said Lorenzo Jones, 36, a former drug dealer who is now executive director of A Better Way Foundation. "I've dedicated my life to community organizing. I firmly believe in it. I think it's the root of everything, and I include labor organizing and gender-rights organizing, any organizing where the main goal is to develop leadership in a community and hold people accountable."

Jones' Hartford-based organization advocates for criminal justice and drug policy reform. It worked successfully to gain a consistent mandatory minumum sentence for possession of crack and powder cocaine, and is now pushing to have municipalities refrain from asking whether a job applicant has ever been convicted.

Community organizing can result in something small, like getting a stop sign installed at a high-traffic street. Or, as we've seen recently in Hartford, big doings, such as forging coalitions that successfully open a new charter school on time after it had been in limbo because of a cash shortage. The promising talks now taking place to open two closed city branch libraries don't happen if fed-up neighborhood folks aren't organized into challenging the leadership that closed them.

Feltman, the retiring Hartford state representative, has served 13 years in public office after working as a community organizer to promote property tax relief, lower auto insurance rates, improve public schools and reduce crime.

"What organizers do is work very hard to achieve social change through citizen empowerment," Feltman said.

Like a lot of grass-rooters on the front lines, he saw no humor in Palin's laugh line.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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