Leadership Origins: Barack Obama As A Community Organizer
“Communities had to be created, fought for, tended like gardens. They expanded or contracted with the dreams of men.”
President Barack Obama began organizing hoping to find a community he could fit in—while organizing, he would discover how to connect and empower individuals to build the very community he longed for. This community, the victories they would fight for, and the challenges they would consistently face, gave Obama his education in creating change.
Obama, like many of you, learned the meaning of leadership through organizing. Organizing taught Obama that true leadership—the ability to empower others, to help others succeed, to connect a variety of personal stories, hopes, and dreams to winnable, specific action—comes from listening first.
How remarkable that our current president, the first African-American president, got his education in leadership creating change through years spent in Chicago organizing.
Just like you, he began organizing because he wanted to make a difference in a community. Just like you, he was more than a little naïve when he started, expecting opportunities for mobilization to present themselves openly. Just like you, he hosted horribly unsuccessful events and mediocre events and events that exceeded even his high expectations. Just like you, he worked with all types of people with all different motivations who shared a simple belief—that they could improve their lives and the lives of those around them. Just like you, he began to realize that people don’t act without being invested, without feeling connected. Just like you, he learned that sharing his stories, no matter how different they felt to him, would be what tied him to those he worked with, what tied them all to organizing.
A few years after college, Obama moved from New York City to Chicago to organize for the Developing Communities Project. With a simple goal to create grassroots change, Obama arrived to Chicago’s South Side as manufacturing jobs were leaving the area rapidly, as politics in the city were shifting (not as rapidly as many would have liked), and many were wondering what they could do to keep their neighborhood from falling into apathy or chaos.
He began like all organizers should begin: by listening to as many people as possible. The only problem was he didn’t know what he was waiting to hear. After three weeks of interviews, his boss finally enlightened him: he needed to look for people’s self-interest. Obama was at first skeptical of how calculating this sounded—of the lack of poetry present in his boss’ idea of organizing.
He would realize soon though, “That’s why people become involved in organizing—because they think they’ll get something out of it. Once [he] found an issue enough people cared about, [he] could take them into action. With enough actions, [he] could start to build power.”
With this new perspective, he would look for issues that people truly cared about, issues that impacted them personally and that were also concrete, specific, and winnable. Even after he began to connect more readily with volunteers in the neighborhood and even after their efforts helped him connect to local leaders, pastors, and politicians, Barack continued to see that organizing is not always clear and most often not easy.
But what the community he was helping to build and empower did have, was poetry.
“That’s what the leadership was teaching me, day by day: that the self-interest I was supposed to be looking for extended well beyond the immediacy of issues, that beneath the small talk and sketchy biographies and received opinions people carried within them some central explanation of themselves. Stories full of terror and wonder, studded with events that still haunted or inspired them.
And it was this realization, I think, that finally allowed me to share more of myself with the people I was working with, to break out of the larger isolation that I had carried with me to Chicago. I was tentative at first, afraid that my prior life would be too foreign for South Side sensibilities; that I might somehow disturb people’s expectations of me. Instead, as people listened to my stories… they would nod their heads or shrug or laugh, wondering… why anyone would willingly choose to spend a winter in Chicago when he could be sunning himself on Waikiki Beach. Then they’d offer a story to match or confound mine, a knot to bind our experiences together – a lost father, an adolescent brush with crime, a wandering heart, a moment of simple grace.
As time passed, I found that these stories, taken together, had helped me bind my world together, that they gave me the sense of place and purpose I’d been looking for. Marty was right; There was always a community there if you dug deep enough. He was wrong, though, in characterizing the work. There was poetry as well—a luminous world always present beneath the surface, a world that people might offer up as a gift to me, if I only remembered to ask.”
As an organizer, Obama learned to understand community—where it exists, how you build it, how you use it—and as our president, he has constantly continued to seek change through empowering and uniting others into a shared community of action.
The lessons President Obama learned while organizing prepared him for every successful step in his career, most importantly his role as U.S. president. The lessons that Obama learned are the very lessons organizers like you get to discover each day, as you work so hard for the causes you believe in.
Lessons like how important it is to listen. Lessons like how listening without action is futile—an organizer’s job is to connect each story she hears to a community that is bonded together to take specific action. Lessons like how leadership often involves taking a back seat while you push others towards success, which requires a vulnerability and honesty that reminds everyone why they organize in the first place.
It was as an organizer in Chicago that President Obama first became a leader and it’s in working every day that organizers like you become future leaders just like him. Maybe someday, you’ll accomplish even more.
*All quotes from Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama.