Where The Journey Began For Obama

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., pauses as he answers a reporters questions outside the White House in Washington, Friday, Jan. 5, 2007, after attending a meeting with between President Bush and members of Congress to discuss the president's revised Iraq. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
AP
When Barack Obama arrived in Southside Chicago, he was on a mission to help. The fires of a once-vibrant steel industry had already died, there were 326,000 unemployed, and nearly 70 percent of public schoolchildren were living below the poverty line. Barack Obama's journey begins here.

"It was a lot of poverty there, but a lot of pride," said Loretta Augustine, a community activist.

Chicago was in the midst of a political firestorm. Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor, had taken the reins and racial tensions were running high, CBS News anchor Katie Couric reports.

It was at this church, in 1984, where Obama came to work as a community organizer for a faith-based group called the Developing Communities Project. He worked in Altgeld Gardens, a racially segregated housing project on Chicago's far south side, in a city where political power means everything, the people of Altgeld were invisible.

"To a great extent, we were powerless," Augustine said.

Obama's challenge was to turn the impoverished residents of Altgeld Gardens into political players — to get their problems heard. But older memebers of the group were skeptical of the 23-year-old.

Gerry Kellman hired Obama.

"How was this kid gonna be any help to them?" Kellman said. CK THIS

Over time, Obama earned their trust and figured out how to make those voices heard.

"What Barack had to do was instill confidence in these folks," Kellman said.

And then, there was a crucial meeting: A representative from the mayor's office tried to take over — and suddenly the south side activists rose up.

"And from the back of the room came Barack's voice and he says, 'we want to hear from Loretta. Let Loretta talk,'" Augustine recalls. "And in that instant, he changed the meeting and focused right back on our agenda."

Surrounded by 53 toxic waste dumps, Altgeld Gardens is often called "the toxic donut."

In 1967, Augustine's 6-year-old daughter died of leukemia — which she's convinced was caused by toxic waste — yet no one was listening to the people in the neighborhood.

"We found out there was a secret meeting in South Chicago on the issue and we had been excluded," she said.

Obama and 300 community members marched to the secret meeting.

"We were not to make any noise. Everyone who could get in the room filed in around these people and they were just like shocked," she says.

The message was loud and clear — and the idea was Obama's.

"You cannot leave the community out of the process. It was so powerful," Augustine says.

Most of the stayed in that job for four months. Obama continued to fight for four years, cutting his teeth on community activism.

The first measure of his leadership skills that are now being tested on a much larger stage.

"Barack came her very idealistic and he left much more practical," Kellman said. "He left, but he didn't leave us. We claim him."