With Obama in the White House, Community Organizers Think Their Time Has Come

With one of their own in the White House, community organizers are flocking to Washington, D.C., to meet with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 5, 2009

Community organizers are the new oilmen. For a change, one of them is in the White House. They walk the marble halls of Congress with a certain swagger, as if their backpacks were designer briefcases and their jeans and baggy blazers were tailored pinstripe suits.

"I tend to get a little nervous," confessed Chermel Rosmond, a faith coalition volunteer from the Bronx, entering the Dirksen Senate Office Building yesterday to do a little work related to the stimulus bill.

"I'm excited and nervous all at once," said Jolene Poen, a retired food-factory supervisor from Idaho heading to the White House to watch President Obama sign the children's health insurance bill.

There's never been a better time to do what they do: Be an obscure, idealistic, possibly burned-out toiler in a broken neighborhood or a starving country hollow, those American battlegrounds where faith is fragile and clear-cut victories are rare.

The desperation out there is greater than ever, sure. But for once hope seems rational -- at least, so think the community organizers, the few who do it for a low-paying living and the many who volunteer because they think it's right.

Obama is the first of their ilk to make it to the White House. He organized on the South Side of Chicago for three years at $10,000-a-year in the mid-1980s. They call Obama the "community organizer in chief." He gets it. They are certain his mojo will take hold in Congress. Caught between the organizers at the grass roots and the one in the White House, Congress will see the light, they imagine.

And so they have come to Washington: talking of the poor, the people of color, the women, the immigrants, the "community" of America, as opposed to America the land of individual space.

It's a big adventure for the community organizers, but they're also fulfilling a timeless and predictable rhythm of Washington, a migration that takes place every four or eight years. Remember eight years ago, when it was the turn of former oil explorer George W. Bush to have his first 100 days? That was a season of energy executives.

The community organizers had felt dissed when Sarah Palin made that crack at the GOP convention: "I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a 'community organizer,' except that you have actual responsibilities."

But they felt more than compensated by the status their profession acquired from Obama's treatment of it as an authenticating part of his résumé.

He "better than anyone understands what the community needs," said Monty Shaw, an insurance salesman and volunteer with Sunflower Community Action in Wichita, who came to town Tuesday for a couple of days of lobbying on the Hill. "You don't have to explain to him. He did it."

Unsaid is that Obama left organizing when he sensed "the limits of what could be achieved," as the organizer who hired him said during the campaign. Obama beat it back to the Ivy League, got a law degree, entered politics. Yet he never turned his back on the old crusades. "What if a politician were to see his job as that of an organizer?" he said to a reporter in Chicago when he first ran for office in 1995.

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