September 19, 2008


Community Organizers Keep Hope Alive

By Rodolfo F. Acuña

I have gotten countless emails in response to Sarah Palin’s disparaging remarks about community organizers. It is really disheartening to have a person running for the second highest office in the land and for her to be so ignorant of history. Historically there has been the need for better educated people, with better skills, to advocate for society’s disenfranchised.

As Siris Barrios, a former student of mine, who is currently an organizer in South Central Los Angeles — about to enter a Master of Arts program in Community Development – writes, “ The speeches made by Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin were an insult to our intelligence. I can’t believe that they dare belittle the work of the community organizer to the equivalent of being a Zero (loser). Our communities depend on the strategic planning and advocacy that community organizers provide for a minimal wage.”

Siris’ remarks remind me of the words of Paul Scharrenberg, an American Federation of Labor official, who in 1935 said of farm worker organizers: “Only fanatics are willing to live in shacks or tents and get their heads broken in the interest of migratory labor.”

Because of these often college educated and idealistic organizers farm workers and their children were able to organize and get better housing, better wages and attend school. Their children were and are the soldiers who have fought in every war. They are many of the elected officials in California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, the Midwest and Northwest. Many of these Americans are the beneficiaries of community (and labor) organizers.

I have only admiration for community organizers. Mexican Americans and other Latinos owe them a debt of gratitude. They are part of that civil rights tradition that John McCain alluded to and knows nothing about.

The organizers who fought for better education and everyone’s right to attend the public schools of their choice.

How dare Palin minimize this struggle. McCain and Palin’s notion of choice is all white private schools with a smattering of minorities to give us the illusion of a colorblind society — much the same as the Republican Convention.

Well, my heroes are the community organizers such as César Chávez who was trained by Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation. The IAF has also graduated geniuses such as Fred Ross and Ernesto Cortes.

For Palin’s information, Wasilla, a suburb of Anchorage, is not the belly button of the universe. If Palin and even McCain want to lead this country they should learn about César and the work of the United Neighborhood Organizations in San Antonio before insulting working people.

For their information, many institutions of higher learning offer graduate degrees in community development; these programs have received much more scrutiny than Palin who was not vetted. Prestigious academies such as the University of Chicago have been at the forefront of this movement.

Not to disparage Wasilla but it takes much more education and technical background to know cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago and New York than it does a suburb of 6700 residents.

Giuliani knows this but he prefers to malign sincere professionals than deal with the truth. That is why so many of New York’s firefighters are disaffected with him. He’ll say anything for applause.

Palin is just ignorant — an intellectual lightweight.

The tragedy is that Wasilla is situated in the methamphetamine capital of Alaska. It is far from the Norman Rockwell vision of America. There is a high incidence of teenage pregnancies and, according to the Alaska State Troopers; there is a juvenile delinquency problem.

The youth of Wasilla would have benefited from good community organizers to deal with their problems. Just like the city of New York benefited from community organizers taking on Giuliani’s racist police department.

My parents used to say that /en boca cerrada no entra mosca/, a fly does not enter a shut mouth. Palin should consider this before she talks about something she knows nothing about.

Community organizers keep hope alive, not the inane preaching of fat cat Republicans.

Before criticizing community organizers. Palin should visit Schools of Urban Planning throughout the United States. She will learn that there is a life outside Wasilla where she advocated burning the library books.

Rodolfo F. Acuña, PhD, Chicana/o Studies Department, California State University at Northridge.

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