Lawyer, teacher, philanthropist, and author Barack Obama doesn’t need another career. But he’s entering politics to get back to his true passion – community organization
When Barack Obama returned to Chicago in 1991 after three brilliant years at Harvard Law School, he didn’t like what he saw. The former community activist, then 30, had come fresh from a term as president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review, a position he was the first African-American to hold. Now he was ready to continue his battle to organize Chicago’s black neighborhoods. But the state of the city muted his exuberance.
“Upon my return to Chicago,” he would write in the epilogue to his recently published memoir, Dreams From My Father, “I would find the signs of decay accelerated throughout the South Side — the neighborhoods shabbier, the children edgier and less restrained, more middle-class families heading out to the suburbs, the jails bursting with glowering youth, my brothers without prospects…..”
Reading to young kids during 1995 IL State Senate campaign – Photo: Marc PoKempner
Today, after three years of law practice and civic activism, Obama has decided to dive into electoral politics. He is running for the Illinois Senate ….. Obama got all sorts of advice. Some of it perplexed him; most of it annoyed him. One African-American elected official suggested that Obama change his name, which he’d inherited from his late Kenyan father. Another told him to put a picture of his light-bronze, boyish face on all his campaign materials, “so people don’t see your name and think you’re some big dark guy.”
“Now all of this may be good political advice,” Obama said, “but it’s all so superficial …. Even those who are on the same page as me on the issues never seem to want to talk about them. Politics is regarded as little more than a career.”
Barack Obama in 1995 in his office at the University of Chicago Law School. On the wall is a portrait of the late Mayor Harold Washington. Photo: Marc PoKempner
Obama doesn’t need another career. As a civil rights lawyer, teacher, philanthropist, and author, he already has no trouble working 12-hour days. He says he is drawn to politics, despite its superficialities, as a means to advance his real passion and calling: community organization.
….. While no political opposition to Obama has arisen yet, many have expressed doubts about the practicality of his ambitions …. “Three major doubts have been raised,” he said. The first is whether in today’s political environment – with its emphasis on media and money – a grass-roots movement can even be created. Will people still answer the call of participatory politics?….
…. In 1992 Obama took time off to direct Project Vote, the most successful grass-roots voter-registration campaign in recent city history. Credited with helping elect Carol Moseley-Braun to the U.S. Senate, the registration drive, aimed primarily at African-Americans, added an estimated 125,000 voters to the voter rolls – even more than were registered during Harold Washington’s mayoral campaigns. “It’s a power thing,” said the brochures and radio commercials.
Campaigning for the Illinois State Senate in 1995, a race he easily won – Photo: Marc PoKempner
Obama’s work on the south side has won him the friendship and respect of many activists. One of them, Johnnie Owens, left the citywide advocacy group Friends of the Parks to join Obama at the Developing Communities Project. He later replaced Obama as its executive director.
“What I liked about Barack immediately is that he brought a certain level of sophistication and intelligence to community work,” Owens says. “He had a reasonable, focused approach that I hadn’t seen much of. A lot of organizers you meet these days are these self-anointed leaders with this strange, way-out approach and unrealistic, eccentric way of pursuing things from the very beginning. Not Barack. He’s not about calling attention to himself. He’s concerned with the work. It’s as if it’s his mission in life, his calling, to work for social justice.
“Anyone who knows me knows that I’m one of the most cynical people you want to see, always looking for somebody’s angle or personal interest,” Owens added.
“I’ve lived in Chicago all my life. I’ve known some of the most ruthless and biggest bullshitters out there, but I see nothing but integrity in this guy.”….