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Column: GOP Jabs At Community Organizers Contradict Theme Of 'service'

This story was written by Nic Swiercek, Daily Nebraskan

Last Wednesday, Rudy Giuliani's speech at the Republican National Convention attempted to discredit Barack Obama's leadership. Giuliani, who surprisingly talked about something other than Sept. 11 for a moment, told the RNC that Obama worked as a "community organizer"-- followed with a perplexed chortle, "What?" and a cascade of riotous laughter from Republican delegates.

Giuliani went on to argue that Obama has "never run a city. He's never run a state. He's never run a business. He's never run a military unit." Giuliani's politicized jabs at Obama sought to minimize his leadership criteria, turn his organizing into a negative and render it a punch line.

Numerous speeches at the RNC last Wednesday painted community organizing as little more than glorified volunteering. In the process, they disparaged the incredible work that individuals of all backgrounds and political philosophies have achieved.

"What in God's name is a community organizer?" sneered former New York Gov. George Pataki at the RNC. "I don't even know if that's a job."

Oddly enough, the RNC's theme Monday was "service" with a motto of "serving a cause greater than self." Bear with me if I find the derision toward community organizing --a profession that holds public service paramount --rather perplexing.

What exactly is a community organizer, and what about the experience makes it laughable? Community organizing is the act of providing opportunities for people to participate in society and government. The absence of participation --which is a cornerstone of democracy --is what Saul Alinsky arguedis "the denial of human dignity and democracy" in his primer "Rules for Radicals."

Community organizing is not just about speaking for people who have little voice in government. The effective organizer cultivates a relentless sense of awareness among a population that articulates and advocates its goals on its own behalf.

It's about guiding people toward an equitable share of power and providing them with ownership over their community. It's about fostering self-determination and compelling them to hold those in power accountable for their policies.

Put simply, community organizing is the practice of empowering people.

Through empowerment, meaningful and tangible change manifests in small ways, such as placing a traffic light at a dangerous intersection, creating neighborhood job training and after-school programs or forcing slumlords to clear asbestos from apartment housing.

Large-scale organizing has the power to compel businesses to change unfair hiring and operating practices, restructure cities in favor of the poor and oblige politicians to dramatically change behavior that acts against the public interest.

Effective organizing is a difficult and lifelong process, but it profoundly changes people's lives and our broader society when it is successful. Consequently, a profound sense of responsibility falls upon community organizers to pick up the slack when America's leaders fail to address the status of those struggling the most in society.

Gov. Sarah Palin, during her big speech Thursday night, attempted to discredit Obama's experience as a community organizer.She said that "a small town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities."

By attacking community organizing, these self-defined anti-"big government" Republicans who dismiss community organizers' responsibilities paradoxically assail the power of individuals and infer that big government leaders, and not average people, truly affect change.

"She attacked an American tradition," argues Deepak Bhargava, executive directr of the Center for Community Change in Washington, D.C. It's a tradition "that has helped everyday Americans engage with the political process and make a difference in their lives and the lives of their neighbors."

The attacks were misguided at best and offensive at worst.

In a statement issued by the Nebraska Chapter of the Nebraska Association of Social Workers, executive director Terry Werner responded to Palin's insult hoping that "instead of denigrating the lives and work of huge segments of the population, candidates will demonstrate how their plans for the country will protect and elevate the quality of life for all Americans."

These speakers' disregard for organizers disparages the gains made by those who organize for workers' rights, women's rights, civil rights and justice for the poor and homeless. It disrespects the advances made by average individuals from various backgrounds across the political spectrum who were compelled to empower the disenfranchised while they suffered intimidation, beatings and jail in the name of social justice.

We need leaders who can identify with the shared experiences of average Americans advocating social change. We need leaders who have worked directly on behalf of those struggling among us.

To the American public, community organizing experience is relevant to the presidency.

Ultimately, Rudy Giuliani, George Pataki and Sarah Palin show a lack of faith in average people's capabilities to create tangible change. They deny the legitimacy to those who attempt to exemplify that we are our brothers' and sisters' keepers.

Speakers at the Republican National Convention, in a philosophically schizophrenic act in opposition to its early-convention catchphrase, "serving a cause greater than self," disparaged the profession that exemplifies this motto: community organizing.