TRASH-TALKING ALASKA GOVERNOR INSPIRES COMMUNITY ORGANIZER ACTION FUND
A month after Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin trashed community organizers as a way to attack Barack Obama, activists and individuals around the country have responded by raising more than $7,500 for the “Community Organizers Fight Back Fund.” The Chicago-based Midwest Academy is managing the fund and will use the money to train future organizers.
During her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention Sept. 3, Palin remarked that being the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, was “sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities.” Former New York Governor George Pataki chimed in as well, saying, “What in God’s name is a community organizer? I don’t even know if that’s a job.”
As one prominent Republican after another mocked Obama’s three years of working with low-income residents on the South Side of Chicago in the 1980s, irate community organizers rapidly mobilized.
“These were pretty personal attacks. That’s the work I do every day,” recalls John Raskin, a 27-year-old community organizer with Housing Conservation Coordinators, a group that works for affordable housing on the West Side of Manhattan. Community organizers work together with individuals and families to take local collective action and win improvements on issues facing their neighborhoods.
Raskin immediately contacted other organizers and formed the Community Organizers of America (COA). A website was quickly put up, organizersfightback.wordpress.com, and hundreds of comments poured in expressing solidarity with community organizers of all stripes.
Five days after COA was formed, a call for donations to the ironically named “Sarah Palin Action Fund for Organizer Training” was made. COA’s efforts raised $2,600, which has been donated to the Midwest Academy’s general fund to train community organizers.
The Midwest Academy bills itself as a “national training institute committed to advancing the struggle for social, economic and racial justice.”
Jackie Kendall, the executive director of the academy, says that the money will most likely be used for a combination of subsidizing people going to its training programs and providing some of the stipend money for up to 40 participants in summer internship programs.
Activists attending the training will learn about a variety of organizing skills from working with coalitions to successful recruiting tactics to strategies to hold elected officials accountable.
Rae Wright, an organizer with Citizen Action Illinois, a public interest organization, attended Midwest Academy’s internship program in 2007. “It taught me not only how to be a stronger organizer, but to be a stronger peer and leader in the communities that I am invested in,” she says.
The next training session will be from Oct. 6 to 10 in Chicago, with costs per participant ranging from $775 to $1,050.
According to the academy, individuals on the email list of True Majority, a liberal organization founded by Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream, contributed the most money for the fund after a plea for donations was announced to their listserv.
The McCain-Palin campaign has tried to downplay the mocking of community organizers, saying that they play an “important role.” Peter Feldman, a spokesman for the campaign, wrote in an email to The Indypendent Sept. 18: “Gov. Palin’s remark was in response to the Obama campaign’s belittling of her executive experience. There is certainly a place as demonstrated by Gov. Palin’s own record of civic involvement, but Barack Obama’s role as a community organizer pales in comparison to Gov. Palin’s demonstrated experience.”
Jackie del Valle, the lead housing organizer for New Settlement Apartments, a Bronx-based housing advocacy group, and a member of COA, says that “it was clear that [the Republicans] didn’t have an understanding at all of what community organizers were.”
Around 18,000 members of Facebook, the social networking website, have joined groups with names like “Community Organizers Against Sarah Palin” and “We Are All Community Organizers” speaking out against the GOP’s attacks on organizers.
“We have to hold the officials who use this sort of language accountable,” Raskin says. “[We need] to make sure that when you attack community organizers, you can’t get away with that.” COA plans on sending a “thank-you” letter to Palin after its $10,000 fundraising drive is over, commending her for “raising awareness of the vital role of community organizing.”