By Elissa Silverman and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 5, 2008
He's called the Community-Organizer-in-Chief. And for yesterday's crowd at the Washington Hilton, that's a good thing.
More than 2,500 grass-roots leaders from across the country gathered in the hotel's grand ballroom to strategize about their role in the administration of President-elect Barack Obama.
The discussions -- which organizers said fulfilled an Obama promise to have his transition team meet with community groups -- focused on a range of topics, including health-care and immigration reform, the economic crisis and job creation.
Congressional and labor leaders were among the speakers, but the spirited crowd rose to its feet for the closing speaker: Valerie Jarrett, a longtime Obama confidante who is co-chair of his transition team and was recently named a White House senior adviser.
"I am here representing somebody who began his career as one of you," said Jarrett, who led the crowd in a chant of "Yes, we did!"
Jarrett acknowledged that Obama's early career as a community organizer in Chicago was scorned by his Republican opponents during the presidential race, but she said the focus on relationship-building and inclusiveness was fundamental to his campaign.
She reassured the cheering activists that they will be fundamental to Obama's governing as well. She said the administration plans to get input from grass-roots leaders through town hall meetings and Internet forums and have key players from the organizing community in the administration.
She announced the appointment of Cecelia Munoz, a senior vice president with the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group, as director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Relations.
"The work starts now. The election was a victory, but we've got work to do to make it real for people," Munoz said. "It is awesome to see people work together to achieve real goals. That is what it is going to take to change the country."
Melody Barnes, Obama's director of the Domestic Policy Council, also attended the event, sponsored by the D.C.-based Center for Community Change and the Gamaliel Foundation, a coalition of faith-based and community groups to which Obama traces his political roots.
"What I want everyone to remember is that we have elected a different kind of president," Barnes said. "What we have now is a president-elect who understands that we are interconnected. We have to rely on the expertise that you have that exists in the faith community, that exists in the labor community, and all of us have to come together to bring that expertise."
Local leaders said the event was energizing.
"It's not only important but essential that we are here," said Gustavo Torres, executive director of Casa of Maryland, a Latino advocacy organization.
The Rev. Jamila Woods, a Maryland pastor and executive director of Prism, added: "Obama can't do it by himself. We as a people have to come together to make his promises a reality."
Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, also encouraged the crowd to shift from "the politics of protest to the challenge of government." He said the role of community organizers now is "not to oppose, but propose."
In her brief remarks, Jarrett acknowledged her own shift in thinking.
"For those of you who know me, I have been a little nervous about moving to Washington, D.C.," she said. "Why? Because I've spent so much of my career complaining about Washington, D.C."
For video and more information, visit the D.C. Wire blog at http://blog.washingtonpost.com/dc/.