The End of Community Organizing in Chicago?

CHICAGOMAG.COM EXCLUSIVE: Barack Obama, the man dubbed the organizer in chief, left Chicago for the White House, and the business of community organizing in the city now faces an uncertain future. What’s more, the movement—once rooted in liberalism—is being adopted by groups on the right, including the Tea Party.

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Meantime, though, the idea of community organizing has come under a withering barrage of attacks, as have some of its organizations. “There is this visceral hatred of Obama and anything that ‘spawned the devil,’” says Galluzzo. “And we spawned the devil.”

During her address at the 2008 Republican National Convention, the former Alaska governor Sarah Palin took a potshot at Obama’s organizing experience. “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer,” she said, “except you have actual responsibilities.”

Palin’s jabs were gentle, however, compared with what followed, including the now-notorious ambush of ACORN. Already reeling from a scandal, ACORN was further humiliated after two conservative activists recorded undercover videos of ACORN employees providing advice about how illegal businesses could evade taxes. The videos found a launching pad on the website of the right-wing Internet provocateur Andrew Breitbart.

The Gamaliel Foundation also had a run-in with Breitbart in September 2009, when he posted a video on his website that he claimed showed organizers deifying Obama in prayer. Breitbart later backed off his charge.

“Attacks on [Obama] increased by a hundredfold the attacks on us,” Galluzzo says. “I always thought I was doing good work, noble work. Now, shit, I’m seen as a diabolical person.”

In January, Galluzzo stepped down as executive director of Gamaliel, which he had led since 1986. His departure follows the death last October of Shel Trapp, who trained numerous other organizers at the National Training and Information Center in Chicago, and the retirements of two other key Chicago-forged Alinskyites: John Baumann, founder of PICO (People Improving Communities through Organizing), and Ed Chambers, who took over the IAF after Alinsky’s death. “All of us, we are all male, pale, and stale,” Galluzzo says, noting that his successor at Gamaliel, Ana Garcia-Ashley, is a black woman from the Dominican Republic. “I think it is time for a new generation to step up and reinvent this shit.”

Madeline Talbott—who left ACORN and founded a new group, Action Now, with some members of her old staff—thinks Obama has helped in this reinvention by spending the last two years advancing the virtues of community organizing. Whereas older Alinskyites refused to consider community organizing a concrete profession, Talbott says, “for the young people, it is a possibility, a way to spend your life that has a name.”

To that end, in December Talbott hired Hannah Joravsky, a 22-year-old former Obama campaign volunteer in Iowa (and the daughter of the Chicago Reader investigative reporter Ben Joravsky), to spearhead a new experiment: trying to organize in the southwest suburbs of Chicago and East Peoria—Tea Party country—focusing on a minimum-wage increase and providing a network of support for new teachers.

“I’m interested in how my skills are going to translate to those people,” Joravsky says, admitting to being a bit nervous at the outset. She had considered working for Organizing for America, the onetime Obama grass-roots campaign operation now under the imprimatur of the Democratic National Committee, but she ultimately decided it was “a little too mainstream.” She would rather work with communities “to make an actual difference and not worry so much about politics.”

She adds, “No matter what Obama does… he is always going to be a special president because he brought organizing into my life and illustrated why it works—even when you’re the underdog.”

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