Thursday, September 04, 2008

Palin Would Not Be Governor If Not for Community Organizers

I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a 'community organizer,' except that you have actual responsibilities.
- - Sarah Palin, GOP convention speech

One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.
- - Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Sarah Palin's attack on community organizers shows that she has no clue about the exacting job requirements of community organizers. Worse, she has no clue about her own debts to the history of community organizing in America, which stretches back to the 19th Century.

One of the most important books in the history of social movements is Robert Fisher's Let the People Decide. In that book Fisher traces the genealogy of community organizing from the 1880's, and if Gov. Palin knew that history she would see that the privilege she enjoys in serving in a high state office and her chance to be placed on a major party's presidential ticket is due in no small part to community organizers who started fighting for national women's suffrage in 1920 and a 2nd wave of organizers in the 1960's and 1970's who demanded equal rights for women.

But she owes what she has to an even larger cloud of organizers. The legacy of community organizers includes prominent women focused on various types of communities. Jane Addams started the first settlement houses that provided day care for working mothers and education for all ages of people at the bottom of the pecking order. Dorothy Day, mother of the Catholic Worker Movement, advocated for women's rights, ran hospitality houses for the dispossessed in urban slums and opposed the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

Sarah Palin's children owe the existence of the leisure time to join their mother in Minneapolis to community organizers like Mother Jones, who organized children working in mills and mines in the early 20th Century to leverage change from a Republican administration that otherwise ignored the ills of child labor. The tiny contingent of African American delegates applauding Ms. Palin attacks enjoyed the right of traveling to Minneapolis via desegregated interstate travel thanks to Rosa Parks, who learned the art of civil disobedience right here in Tennessee at the Highlander Folk School from a community organizer, Myles Horton (who also trained Martin Luther King, Jr.).

You see, so much of Sarah Palin's public life would have been erased had it not been for the thankless work of an unbroken line of community organizers (both remembered and forgotten). But she had no thanks in her snide and sophomoric denigration of community organizing. She expressed prideful and pompous disdain for her forebearers as if she earned the privileges of public service all by herself (thus confirming the perception that Republican leaders get born on third base and assume they hit triples). And her previous life as a beauty pageant contestant, TV desk reporter, and hockey mom never afforded her the opportunity to stand in the shoes of people who work night and day (including weekends) for modest pay to serve their community by organizing it.

Worst of all, she abdicated her responsibility as a public servant to retell the story of American progress as her own story. For the sake of personal gain and her own portfolio, Sarah Palin attempted to poison the perception of Americans who may know community organizing even less than she does. The story of America since the late 19th Century is the story of immigrants being "Americanized," women getting the vote and breaking through vocational glass ceilings, African Americans finally enjoying the basic civil rights to which they were entitled ages ago, Latinos fighting for the full fruits of their labors, children being freed from sweat shops to go to school and to play (and, in Bristol Palin's case, freed to have their own children), and neighborhoods leveraging a place at the table of decision makers. Community organizers are the central protagonists in that story, even if Sarah Palin doesn't really understand or acknowledge that.

1 comment:

  1. When Palin criticizes community organizers, she is in essence panning George H. W. Bush's '1,000 Points of Light' program, which awards community organizers for addressing community needs. Ah, how quickly they forget.