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My 'best education'

Campaign 2008 | How did Barack Obama's community-organizer training with the radical IAF organization shape him as a leader?

On the seventh anniversary of 9/11 last month, Barack Obama told an audience at Columbia University that his best education came not from Columbia (where he earned his bachelor's degree) but afterwards, when he became a community organizer in Chicago. Obama intended no offense to his alma mater (and none was taken). But his remark raises the question just why he thinks the lessons of community organizing exceed the lessons of an Ivy League education.

The "community organizer" training Obama received in the mid-1980s, and that he continues to praise today as central to how he will govern if elected president, came from the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). As John Judis remarked in the New Republic ("Creation Myth: What Barack Obama Won't Tell You about His Community Organizing Past," Sept. 10, 2008): "Obama the politician is a direct descendant of Obama the [IAF] organizer-that he has carried the practices and principles of community organizing into his campaign, and would carry them into the White House as well."

The Obama candidacy is therefore an effort to elect the first-ever IAF-trained organizer into the presidency. But what does that mean? The IAF is a national organization founded in Chicago by radical activist Saul Alinsky and shaped, after Alinsky's death in 1972, by Ed Chambers, who set up a training program to vastly increase the number of organizers.

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The word "radical" is much overused, but in the IAF's case it fits. "Radical" means, "getting to the root," and Alinsky wanted to get to the root of, and indeed uproot, America's cultural values and political system. Thus Alinsky's famous dedication to his book Rules for Radicals:

Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins-or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom-Lucifer.

Alinsky, who had no apparent commitment to any Biblical religion, was here a bit tongue-in-cheek. But even if his invocation of Lucifer is symbolic, it matters: Symbols convey power, as does the destruction of powerful symbols.

To understand the IAF and its guiding vision during the years that Obama received his "best education," there's no better source than Jim Rooney's Organizing the South Bronx, a study sponsored and published by the State University of New York. This scholarly book examines the IAF's nationwide "community organizer" planning and training program of the mid-to-late 1980s-the program Obama learned and that he still praises today-using its activities among churches in the South Bronx as an example of the IAF's approach to community organizing.

William Ayers, the unrepentant 1960s Weather Underground terrorist bomber and contemporary Obama associate, who to this day allows himself to be photographed while trampling on an American flag, praised Rooney's work on the back cover: "This is an outstanding book-well-written, clearly organized, engaging, interesting, important."

Rooney attended an IAF training session in July 1989, and he details what the standard IAF training included in the years that Barack Obama became an IAF organizer (1985 and 1986). Organizing the South Bronx reveals that the goals and strategies of Obama's IAF include:

  • "IAF leaders are brazenly explicit about their appetite for power." (p. 222)
  • "Once you have power, you can afford to be nice." (p. 226)
  • "To wean [churches] from fulfilling traditional expectations." (p. 223)
  • "To energize [a pastor the IAF wanted to recruit], the first thing they did at those meetings was to begin conspicuously with a prayer." (p. 99)
  • "You need diverse sources of funds, so that if [one church in an IAF-inspired coalition] want[s] to pull out our money, fine, we still have Episcopal money; if they want to pull out, then we've got Lutheran money. Plus, the fact that over three years we have put over $150,000 of our own money in the bank. So they can all take a big flying [expletive], I don't care." (p. 232)
  • "There is no nice way to bring about change. All change comes through pressure and threats." (p. 226)
  • "Increase militancy by polarizing the situation, by identifying the enemy, and by developing the situation in terms of good guys and bad guys." (p. 89)
  • "It is absolutely essential to select a ripe target [a person] and build animosity toward him or her." (p. 228)
  • "A target has to be selected and mercilessly zeroed in on." (p. 228)
  • The person selected is to be "targeted as a stock villain, a lackey of the corrupt political establishment." (p. 228)
  • When a target has "become too shopworn to continue to light up anyone's emotional switchboard," it is necessary to choose new people to target "as action lightning rods." (p. 228)
  • "All IAF organizers take huge delight in planning the drama of confronting authorities. Perhaps it is their ecclesiastical backgrounds, with its loving attention to rituals and ceremonies, but clearly their enthusiasm for the details and rich symbolism of staged events is irrepressible." (p. 85)
  • [New York Mayor Koch:] "I had the feeling I was in some Nuremberg stadium. There was a military band. There were more than 1,000 people, chanting. They were thumping standards on the floor. It was like mass hysteria and very militant." (p. 86) [Do we not see here a model for Obama's Greek-columned, fireworks-enhanced stadium acceptance speech?]


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