Steele: The Thousand Points of Light, that's, that's sort of non-profit, you know, working with various non-profit organizations, no--I spent almost a decade observing and writing on a cadre of community organizers working in Nashville with the Industrial Areas Foundation (which is the same organization with which Barack Obama was affiliated in Chicago). Some of my research appeared in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. So, I believe that my first-hand perspective matters in this debate.
Maher: Community organizers are out to get rich?
Steele: No. No. Not necessarily. Not necessarily! Not necessarily! Not, not-- Bill! Listen. It's more political. It's more political. It's more coordinating legislative issues. It's not non-partis--It's not, you know, bi-partisan-non-partisan. Sort of--
Steele's comments about community organizers has very little resemblance to what I observed. His spin that community organizers work on "legislative issues" is not only an overgeneralization, but even if only intended to describe IAF organizers, it is misleading in that it makes them sound like lobbyists. The organizers I observed were much more focused on helping communities define their own interests and develop strategies on their own for a whole host of initiatives and also focused on issues involving the Mayor's Office.
One product of community organizing here in Nashville had nothing to do with legislation: the creation of the Neighborhood Justice Center on Jefferson Street was an attempt to help the police and to ease clogging in the court system by providing mediation between Nashvillians in conflict. Contrary to Mr. Steele's ridiculous claim that these community organizations are not non-profits, the IAF affiliate that made the NJC possible here is a non-profit.
Steele's claim that community organizations are partisan is the most insidious lie, and and it shows that Steel either ignores or is ignorant of how these non-profits operate. I consistently heard community organizers underscore that IAF affiliates may not endorse political parties or candidates. Instead, member congregations and neighborhood associations (there are no individual members) formulated point-by-point agendas and invited candidates for office and office holders to attend large public meetings of delegates where they were asked to answer "Yes" or "No" whether they support the organization's agenda. Delegates were asked to keep scorecards themselves of the answers, but at no time did I witness organizers follow up by endorsing particular candidates or parties. Because the agenda was created from hundreds of house meetings in faith-based and secular associations, the agenda was not reflective of any political party's platform.
Steele's attempt to impugn community organizations as more partisan than non-profits is wrong, misleading, perhaps even malicious. These organizations are focused on politics, but my research indicates that organizers emphasized that their definition of politics was the classical definition of politics (as in the function and leadership of life in the ancient Greek city-state, or "polis"), which is broader than the restriction of politics to the GOP or the Democratic Party. To call it politically-focused is correct, but Steele's linkage of "politics" to partisanship is deceptive.