Will I Ever Learn?

I find it humorous that it has taken me a lifetime to learn what a community organizer is, and I’m still not sure I understand it yet. In the latest book I read “In Dubious Battle,” author John Steinbeck created a narrative about 1930’s workers starving to death while searching for work. The great Depression had forced many people out of their livelihood and into desperation. People from all over the US had migrated to California where they heard there were jobs harvesting fruits and vegetables. The one thing these poor souls did not figure on is that there would be a hundred people ahead of them for each job that existed. The situation was a big benefit for the growers because the workforce was quickly available and they could reduce pay to a bare minimum. Workers who were broke from the long trip getting to the promised land accepted what ever was offered. As more, and more people came to pick apples the growers lowered the pay to those coming in last. The more pickers a farmer had the quicker his crop was harvested, and the shorter the work lasted.

In this story, Steinbeck follows a family who has been running from job to job only to learn that they could not earn a living at the wages paid. However, they were not alone. The encampment where the migrants stayed while at a farm was filled to the capacity with new workers coming in daily. Conditions were appalling, and hunger abounded. In come Mack, and his friend Jim, fresh off a boxcar from a town that was lacking in jobs. Neither of these men had any intention to become apple pickers, but they did harvest men to a cause. The growers referred to these men as “reds” because they associated themselves with the Communist Party of America. Mack’s sole objective was to organize this camp into a mob with a goal to get higher wages. Mack was good at finding men who were natural leaders, who people would follow. Mack also taught the leaders the tricks of staying out of jail.

The eventual outcome of this story is that the pickers went on strike. They were trained by Mack, a community organizer. I’ll stop exposing the story here. Read the book to learn who won the Dubious Battle.

The first time I heard the term “community organizer,” was during the 2008 presidential campaign. It turns out that Barack Obama began his career as a community organizer before getting into politics. After reading Obama’s biography I learned that his job as a C.O. was in a neighborhood near my own boyhood neighborhood of Burnside called Altgeld Gardens. Other than knowing where Altgeld Gardens was I didn’t know a thing about it except that is was a dangerous place. After later research I learned it was a government housing project for poor blacks. As are most government projects this place was badly neglected, and a once proud community had become a ghetto. Obama speaks about his time there, but never really speaks about accomplishing anything other than to get a few people to meet as a group to identify common problems and to learn which government agency to call for help.

This month I scoured Netflix for a new series to watch, and found one called The English Game. This story too, has a theme of rich versus poor, and of course the rich are very organized and the poor are not. The rich mill owners face a downturn in business and they solve the problem in the only way they know which is to cut wages. The mill workers are a bit more sophisticated than the pickers of the western states, but they get the idea to strike without a formal organizer.

I figure that if I get enough of these messages from life, (movies, books, newspapers) I will eventually understand what a community organizer does. At this point I see the community organizer as one who helps the people of a specific community to help themselves.

One Response

  1. “Help me help you” as Jerry Maguire says 🙂

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