The national discussion of community organizers over the past week has piqued my interest because I’ve been involved in some kind of community organizing my whole adult life. I’ve tried to incorporate the lessons I’ve learned into the courses I teach on Detroit and social movements, and I’m currently writing two books tied to my community-based research.

Illustration by Rose Jaffe

So here are my two cents.

I guess a community organizer is (pause) sort of like someone who gives a flashy speech (smile at the camera) at the Republican National Convention (snicker, snicker), except that you actually take responsibility to address the problems of the people and neighborhoods devastated by inhumane corporate behavior and failed Washington leadership.

John McCain helped bring this issue into focus when he exhorted us to “defend the rights of the oppressed” before shouting the word “fight” repeatedly and looking like a hermetically sealed head atop a malfunctioning robot on the show “Futurama.” Now he’s on the road with Sarah Palin, who has continued belittling the work of community organizers.

Is this what it has come to in 2008? The incumbent party’s candidates are determined to run as insurgents seeking to overthrow the Washington elite by dissing community organizers.

Can you say cognitive dissonance?

Politically, I get why they are doing this. With almost no chance to win urban votes, McCain is making a Nixonian “silent majority” appeal to voters with “small-town values,” which includes those living just north of 8 Mile Road. The “community organizer” is a bogeyman. An “angry” agitator like Al Sharpton. An outsider invading people’s space — sponsored by “liberal elites” and the federal government — to tell them how to live their lives. It wasn’t long ago that Republicans like Ronald Reagan derided Martin Luther King Jr. for his ties to “communism.”

Sadly, this polarizing rhetoric is still quite effective at keeping Americans divided and preventing those with common problems from working together to get at these problems’ root causes. Palin, the gun-toting moose hunter, is the ideal messenger. And truth be told, some self-styled “community organizers” fit the stereotype all too well.

But the flipside of the attack on community organizers is that it is inspiring thousands of progressives to invest even more energy in the campaign. Moreover, it is exposing how completely out of touch the Republicans are with the most politically active and astute young Americans. This means that no matter who wins in November, the impact of the 2008 election will be felt for decades to come. And that matters tremendously.

The Republican model of “charity” may find some sincere and noble expression in the work of Cindy McCain. But its central failing is that it is too stained by the legacy of noblesse oblige — the idea that inequality is natural but the rich have a responsibility to help the poor, if nothing else, to feel good about themselves and ensure their own safety.

By contrast, living in, working in and teaching about Detroit, I have seen firsthand how the model of community organizing built by the greatest humanity-stretching movements in our history presents a far more transformative idea of social change. From a few victories and many setbacks, from elders and youths, from veteran activists and wide-eyed students, I have gained a deeper sense of what it means to survive, struggle and envision a better world within what is arguably the nation’s most devastated big city.

Community organizing is the crucial vehicle to hold the candidates to their word when they tell us that the American system of representative democracy is broken. Corporate interests have taken control of Washington D.C., leaving us with too many politicians in both parties devoid of courage, accountability or authenticity. What is required is a social movement that will make Washington responsive to participatory democracy, the ongoing practice of ordinary people shaping the world through our day-to-day activities and not just casting a ballot every four years.

And community organizers — some paid, but most unpaid — are a critical part of building such a movement. The best organizers work among the grassroots, getting to know the people who make up communities and gaining intimate knowledge of their problems in ways that can’t be gleaned from the photo-op appearances by typical politicians. The best organizers empower people to express their needs and concerns, not just as individuals but also as a more powerful collective of diverse but coordinated souls.

Barack Obama was catapulted from longshot to nominee because his most ardent supporters already understood this. But in the end, no single charismatic leader — be that person a prisoner of war or a brother from the South Side — can bring about the change we so desperately need.

That’s up to all of us.

Scott Kurashige is an associate professor of American Culture and History at the University. He is a research fellow at Harvard University this academic year.

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