Community Organization Is A Waste

So said Obama when he was deep in it reports the New Republic:

He told Kellman that he feared community organizing would never allow him “to make major changes in poverty or discrimination.” To do that, he said, “you either had to be an elected official or be influential with elected officials.” In other words, Obama believed that his chosen profession was getting him nowhere, or at least not far enough. Personally, he might end up like his father; politically, he would fail to improve the lot of those he was trying to help.

And so, Obama told Kellman, he had decided to leave community organizing and go to law school. Kellman, who was already thinking of leaving organizing himself, found no reason to argue with him. “Organizing,” Kellman tells me, as we sit in a Chicago restaurant down the street from the Catholic church where he now works as a lay minister, “is always a lost cause.” Obama, circa late 1987, might or might not have put it quite that strongly. But he had clearly developed serious doubts about the career he was pursuing.

Though I would add that the political process is also a lost cause in helping the poor, but that lesson, if Obama wins the presidency, will be one he will learn later.

6 Responses to “Community Organization Is A Waste”


  • There are numerous factual examples of both government charity, and community organizations doing excellent work. Just as there are examples of failures of both.

    Martin Luther King Jr., for example, was a very successful community organizer.

    Hyperbolic, blanket statements, such as “Community organization is a waste”, are manifestly wrong.

  • MLK is probably the only positive example one can give – and when you factor in what many of the programs that were adopted in his name resulted in, it becomes less of a positive.

    Maybe complete waste is too strong…but certainly very low on the list.

  • MLK is probably the only positive example you can give.

    Ahem… (prepare for long sermon)

    When I was a kid there was a guy in our neighborhood – Mr. Craig – who was very dedicated to the Boy Scouts. Year after year he dedicated a huge amount of unpaid time to that effort. Many of the neighborhood boys (though not myself) went on to become Eagle Scouts. And Mr. Craig is just one of literally thousands of such volunteers in the scouting movement. Thousands of positive examples of community organization. Community organization that often works.

    Years ago, my parents, who lived in New Mexico, were asked by the church they attend to form a special outreach to the native Indian population on nearby reservations. For about three years, my parents provided mundane, but badly needed services, such as providing transportation to families, helping kids get paperwork and innoculations for school, and sometimes even handing out their own money when someone couldn’t meet the rent. Was the outreach effective? In retrospect, I would say that they would have a hard time pointing to even one family that was saved from the poverty of the reservation by the things they did. So, if that’s the measuring stick, it was a failure. But they helped a lot of people make their lives a little easier. I call that a success. Feel free to disagree.

    And, once again, there are literally thousands of people who do community service of this kind. That you don’t know their names does not mean that they do not exist.

    I could go on… I have known dozens of people who volunteer at their churches to organize youth activities, who organize neighborhood basketball, who do anti-crime patrols in their communities. The Mormon Church, which I attended for most of my young life, has an extremely effective welfare system, organized around church members who donate their time and money to provide for the needy members of the church. This is community organization at it’s finest. And what of all those volunteers who organize to re-build communities when disasters occur? Are we to consider their efforts failures? Was not one of them ever successful?

    As I said, I could go on…

  • Good point LaurenceB! I should have clarified…when I think of community organization I think of it in the political sense – in other words, those community organizations that are geared at political solutions more than say, improving the character and conditions of the poor.

    I realize that the two are often intertwined…but usually the more political motivated, the worse the community organization, IMHO. If you read Obama’s experience as a community organizer (in the article above), it reaffirms my opinion – the vast majority of his work as a community organizer was a waste.

    I wholeheartedly believe that charity and church organizations that are forced at self empowerment, alleviating poverty and overall focus on the individual outside are politics are doing excellent work and are absolutely necessary in any economic system.

  • HP, I just wanted to add to your point that it seems that problems with community organizing only surfaces when public money (taxes) are provided. All the examples provided by LB all seems to be true community organization where those organizations operated with donations instead of tax money. While its true that not all community projects are a waste, the ones with tax money seems be the ones where money is poorly spent.

  • Thanks Israel! That was precisely my point!

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