By SERGE KOVALESKI
CHICAGO – The year was 1985 and Gerald Kellman, a community organizer, was interviewing an applicant named Barack Obama to work in the demoralized landscape of poor neighborhoods on this city’s South Side. He liked the young man’s intelligence, motivation and acutely personal understanding of how it felt to be an outsider. He also remembers that Obama drove a hard bargain.
“He challenged me on whether we could teach him anything,” Kellman recalled. “He wanted to know things like ‘How are you going to train me?’ and ‘What am I going to learn?”’
Obama’s three-year stretch as a grass-roots organizer has figured prominently, if not profoundly, in his own narrative of his life. Campaigning in Iowa, Obama called it “the best education I ever had, better than anything I got at Harvard Law School,” an education that he said was “seared into my brain.” He devoted about one-third of the 442 pages in his memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” to chronicling that experience.
In recent days, Obama has imbued those years with even greater significance, invoking them last week as inspiration for his plan to deliver social services through religious organizations. He told a conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church on Saturday that as a community organizer he “let Jesus Christ into my life” and “I dedicated myself to discovering his truth and carrying out his works.”
It is clear that the benefit of those years to Obama dwarfs what he accomplished. Kellman said that Obama had built the organization’s following among needy residents and black ministers, but “on issues, we made very little progress, nothing that would change poverty on the South Side of Chicago.”
When he was running for Senate in 2004, Obama told members of the community organization that had employed him that “when I left to go to law school, I couldn’t tell exactly whether I had gotten more out of this than the people I was working with.”
During that time, Obama found a home at the center of the country after spending most of his first 23 years in Hawaii and Indonesia. He also both lived and worked extensively for the first time in a black community. At a very local level he learned to bring people together around causes and to mobilize them with his words.
“I got the distinct impression that he was selling something he believed in, and I was going to buy it,” said the Rev. Samuel Strachan, a minister Obama brought into his organization.
For Obama, who had been drawn to Chicago by the recent election of Harold Washington as Chicago’s first black mayor, perhaps the greatest benefit of his time on the streets of the South Side was coming to terms with his place in black America.
“All of a sudden Barack finds himself in one of the most complex African-American communities in the United States, and he discovers an energizing capacity to connect with the people in these neighborhoods,” said Gregory Galluzzo, a community organizer who worked with Obama.
“He is experiencing blackness in Chicago on both sides of the spectrum, from residents of public housing to Harold Washington,” Galluzzo added. “His identification with these people begins his political journey.”
A UNIQUE LIFE
Before graduating from Columbia University in 1983, Obama had written to civil rights organizations and to black elected officials looking for work. No one wrote back.
He worked brief stints at two different jobs, but unemployed two years later, Obama answered an ad for a Chicago grass-roots organizer. With the devastating demise of the steel industry, Kellman was trying to work with blacks in the city and whites in the suburbs to salvage manufacturing jobs. Kellman, who is white, was looking for a black organizer to assist him.
Kellman said that based on the resume, he had not been sure Obama was black. The name Obama and the fact that he had grown up in Hawaii, made him think Obama might be Japanese.
In fact, Obama, the son of a black father and white mother, was on a search for racial identity. In his memoir, Obama reflected on the grainy, black-and-white images of the civil rights struggles that his mother showed him when he was a boy and how they reminded him “that I wasn’t alone in my particular struggles.”
He wrote that membership in the black community had to be earned “through organizing, through shared sacrifice,” adding, “I believed that it might, over time, admit the uniqueness of my own life.”
At their first meeting, Kellman had some concerns about whether Obama had the stamina for such grueling, frustrating work. “Barack looked good, but would he burn out?” he said.
Still, Kellman was impressed, believing that Obama’s background had taught him what it was like to be an outsider. “These kinds of experiences help people relate to others who are outsiders of the system,” Kellman said. “On a compassion level, this is important.”
Kellman offered him the job on the spot. And Obama accepted, for a starting salary of $10,000 a year, plus $2,000 to buy a car.
FINDING HIS OWN IDENTITY
Loretta Augustine-Herron recalled sitting at her kitchen table with Obama for several hours one afternoon at her home near a housing project.
“He was not in a hurry, and I told him about what I did working with Girl Scouts and volunteering at school as a room mother and for block clubs in the neighborhood,” she said. “He wanted to know what made me tick, what my goals were, and how things impacted the stability of my family.”
Augustine-Herron said that long afterward, Obama recalled details of their talk, like her oldest daughter’s service in the Air Force.
The small organization Obama worked for, the Developing Communities Project, was influenced by the thinking of Saul Alinsky, a Chicago native regarded as the father of community organizing. Alinsky viewed self-interest as the main motivation for political participation.
Obama saw it more broadly. “In his view, figuring out who you are and then getting that person to think about what he or she is going to do with it is the first step toward empowerment,” Daniel Lee, a fellow organizer, recalled. “He told me this was an extension of his own journey in struggling to find his identity.”
Obama shunned Alinsky’s strategy of using confrontation tactics like pressuring public officials and business leaders by picketing their homes.
“I think it was strategic that he would not have fallouts with people he disagreed with because he realized that he had to work with them not just on one particular issue, but on other issues down the road,” Kellman said.
Obama did adhere to the Alinsky principle of meticulously planning for meetings with people in power. The roles of the residents were scripted and the organizer was a quiet, inconspicuous presence.
One of the larger meetings Obama helped set up was at a church where about 600 people turned out to talk with officials about water contamination. He stood in the back holding a clipboard that had a diagram with the names and talking points for each of the residents. He also had arranged backups in case someone became too nervous to speak.
“People are asking Barack for instructions and he is giving them their roles and giving encouragement to people who had cold feet,” recalled Harold Lucas, who was a fellow organizer.
Afterward, Obama held an evaluation session with 20 or so residents, and one tenant led them in prayer.
Obama faced skepticism from Baptist and Pentecostal pastors unwilling to use their influence to help him organize their members. His group had consisted almost entirely of Catholic churches, and its top officials were white and Jewish.
“Barack had to get beyond the accusation that he was working for Catholics and Jews who were trying to make money off the community,” Kellman said.
Obama wrote that a minister suggested it would be helpful if he belonged to a church, and he joined the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.'s congregation after hearing a sermon about faith’s power to inspire underdogs. Wright’s sermons have been an issue in the campaign.
In his paramount achievement, Obama persuaded a number of these pastors to enlist their churches as members of the Developing Communities Project. Fortunately for Obama, a new wave of younger pastors was replacing the older guard.
“He was interested in finding out what I thought could be done in the community about issues like public safety and employment, rather than giving me some long-winded spiel,” said the Rev. Alvin Love, the pastor of Lilydale First Baptist Church. “We were looking for ways to get involved, and Barack gave us a mechanism to do that.”
Obama asked him to attend a meeting with other ministers. “Fifteen churches were represented there, and we started making plans to mobilize around issues like drugs, violence and job training,” Love said.
WRANGLING OVER ASBESTOS
In a stirring scene from his memoir, Obama describes an organizing success at Altgeld Gardens, a badly neglected housing project.
Obama wrote that one day an Altgeld parent handed him a newspaper advertisement soliciting bids to remove asbestos from Altgeld’s management office.
Obama recounted that he helped arrange a bus trip to the housing authority headquarters where residents had demanded a meeting with the executive director and a pledge that residential units would be tested for asbestos. As television cameras rolled, the residents were promised testing and a meeting.
“I changed as a result of that bus trip, in a fundamental way,” Obama wrote. It was the kind of action that “hints at what might be possible and therefore spurs you on.”
What Obama does not mention in his book is that residents of the nearby Ida B. Wells housing project, and some at Altgeld itself, had already been challenging the housing authority on asbestos. A local newspaper had also taken up the issue.
“Barack based the Altgeld campaign on the Wells model,” Mike Kruglik, an organizer who helped train Obama in Chicago, remembered. “He said, ‘Why can’t we do this at Altgeld?”'
Around the same time, The Chicago Reporter, aided by a community organizer named Linda Randle, published an article about asbestos problems at Wells.
In an interview, Randle said that she and Obama had formed a coalition to deal with asbestos.
“It was not one person that made the difference,” Randle said. “It was everyone coming together.”
Hazel Johnson, an environmental activist at Altgeld, said that she started to raise the asbestos issue with the housing authority in 1979, but that it had failed to act. Johnson and Randle pointed out that only some of the asbestos was removed from pipes at Altgeld, but not until 1989, a year after Obama left for Harvard.
Meanwhile, the residents’ meeting with the housing authority’s executive director was a debacle, an illustration of the setbacks faced by Obama and other organizers.
The crowd of about 700 residents grew irritable in the stifling heat and booed the director when he arrived an hour and 15 minutes late, according to people who were there, as well as newspaper accounts.
The meeting became even more raucous after the director indicated that the agency still did not have a plan to remove the asbestos. The director abruptly left 15 minutes into the meeting after a resident wrestled with him for the microphone.
Angry tenants followed him out the door, chanting, “No more rent!”
Later that night, Obama called Johnnie Owens, whom he would hire as a community organizer. Never had Obama sounded so downcast or frustrated, Owens said.
“Barack basically talked about how tough it was to generate real results through organizing and that it was embarrassing to him to have the residents out of control,” he recounted.
“He wondered if he had done a good enough job preparing them for the meeting,” Owens said. “He sounded angry at himself. He was questioning the whole methodology.”
Obama had risen to executive director of the Developing Communities group, but the demanding hours, small victories and low pay took a toll on him, and he decided to leave.
“‘We are not making large-scale change, and I want to be involved in doing that,”’ Kellman said Obama had told him.
Kellman said Obama spent his final months in Chicago making sure the organization had enough money, staff members and church members to survive after he left.
Obama had mused to friends in Chicago about one day working for unions or becoming a preacher, a journalist or even a fiction writer. While there, he wrote short stories based on people he had encountered. “The stories were beautifully crafted and evocative,” said Kruglik.
But Obama decided on law school instead. Shortly before Obama left for Harvard, about 60 people attended a farewell reception for him at Altgeld Gardens. He told associates that he intended to return to Chicago once he earned his law degree to pursue a career “in public life.”
“I had things to learn in law school, things that would help me bring about real change,” he wrote in his memoir. “I would learn power’s currency in all its intricacy.”© The New York Times. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.