Like many people of diverse political affiliations, I bristled during the Republican National Convention when various speakers including VP candidate Sarah Palin made fun of "community organizer" as a worthwhile way of spending time.
It wasn't problematic for me because the attack was being used against candidate Barack Obama, although I didn't find it to be an effective or useful expression of concern about his qualifications. Instead, I think that it was just plain insulting to the many people in communities across the world who devote their time and energy to making their local communities better places to live. Further, I think it was a hypocritical and problematic assertion given some of the other selling points being used to present Palin and McCain to voters. Here's why:
Community organizers are people who look at the concerns and opportunities in their neighborhoods, cities, counties and regions and ask, "what can I do to make good things happen here?" They connect people with resources, people with people. They make the case to decision-makers so that better decisions can be made, though they don't necessarily wait patiently for the machinations of government when they can be more effective using grassroots methods. They take pride in the place they call home, and aren't afraid to acknowledge its shortcomings while presenting the case for hope in the future.
Community organizers are the thorns in the side of people who block progress by clinging to "the way things have always been" and "our best days are behind us." They ask "what about the suffering among us?" and "how can we do more with the resources we already have?" Community organizers are the old timers, go-getters, entrepreneurs, social butterflies, visionaries, and humble leaders that serve as cornerstones in the circles they traverse - often unrecognized, but not in it for the recognition.
Are you sure you want to laugh at community organizers? Are you sure you want to paint them as people who aren't qualified to be leaders?
I suspect that Sarah Palin and others thought laughing and finger pointing was appropriate because "Community Organizer" is a title that doesn't fit very well into the patriarchal, bottom-line focused hierarchy of status and power that comes along with national politics. It's like "Stay at Home Mom" or "Poet/Writer" or "Homemaker" in that all of these ways of spending time are still seen as somehow less worthy than "CEO" or "Mayor" or "President." They don't pay as well, you can't list out your accomplishments as judged by some globally accepted standard, and they don't command as much awe and respect from the workaholic, instant gratification culture that only cares about how many people you can get to do your bidding at a moment's notice.
And so it was easy to throw the pitiable "Community Organizer" up there next to the all-important "Mayor" and laugh and point.
"Of course a Mayor is a better station in life than Community Organizer! Of course Mayors always get more done, are better leaders, and because they have an official job description, of course they're more accountable and effective!" But when you stop to think about it, most of us can say with some certainty that this is a false narrative, and that in any given town, the Mayor (or State Representative, or Senator, or President) can be as incompetent and poor at leadership as anyone else. In fact, there's that old adage that someone who can get themselves elected to a given public office perhaps isn't actually qualified to be there. I don't think all or even most elected officials fall into this category, but the point is that there's no generalizing or assuming. Especially not when you're talking about someone who might get to control nuclear weapons.
I was also surprised to hear Palin make this laughing comparison and then hold up "Hockey Mom" as a bullet point on her resume. Like Community Organizers, Hockey Moms (and sometimes Dads) tend to be people who put passion, love and energy into supporting their children, attending local events with enthusiasm, being involved in the local school system, building stronger communities, and holding it all together through the highs and lows. Surely Hockey Moms want to know that their lives and the way they spend time have worth and importance in our culture even though they too do not fit into a narrow corporate structure of how human lives are valued? It's disingenuous to hold up one kind of non-traditional life choice as laughable while rallying around another, and it just reminds us how scripted and fake the rhetoric is.
If you read this blog regularly, you know that I don't spend much time hoping that the federal government will Do Something to make my life better. Indeed, I think most of us know that if we want to experience change in our lives, we actually have to go out and make that change happen ourselves. When I see someone who has devoted their time and energy to not only changing their own lives for the better, but also reaching out into their community and organizing for change that benefits others, I stand in awe. I do this because I know it is these among us who play a big part in actually making progress possible - people who inspire and lead, who bleed the blood of their neighbors and who celebrate loudly when joy comes to their town. This is the stuff that strong communities are made of, the stuff that makes bloated government even more unnecessary and in the way.
I can only assume that anyone who would look down on this and laugh so condescendingly is just scrambling get to the top of the power and wealth pyramid as fast as possible, no matter who they have to step on, and I see no honor or integrity in that.
For me, if my life were being remembered by friends and family, and the most that could be said was that I acted passionately for the benefit of my community, I would have lived a life that mattered.