Community organizing works. Anyone who questions that statement needn’t look further than our current US president. By leveraging the grassroots, democratic “bottom-up” approach, President Barack Obama quite literally organized his way into office. He spent a great deal of time as an organizer prior to arriving in Washington, which is still apparent in the way he conducts himself during public appearances. He has a way of speaking to “the people” as if he is actually one of the people. Charging ordinary citizens to organize and act together on his behalf during the race played a key role in him securing a place in office.
I feel cheated by him though. He led me to believe that things would be different, that he would fight for me and you and every other American who was desperate for the change he boldly touted. But much like reaching the bottom of a Crackerjack box in anticipation of the golden horse promised, Obama has become my empty Crackerjack box of disappointment. The popcorn in those things tastes like cardboard, but we keep eating because we have blind faith that we are going to reach the bottom of the box where our prize awaits.
We believe it because it says so on the package and why would “they” lie to us? I bought a box of cereal with a label that read, “’gluten-free’, most-amazing-cereal-you’ve-ever-tasted-ever-ever-ever!” Ok, that’s probably not exactly how the label read, but you get my point.
So I get home all excited like to try this shiny new cereal, when at first bite I discover it’s the same cereal I hate. It is dangerously crunchy (like, run out and make a dentist your new best friend if you wish to continue eating this cereal, crunchy), and completely flavorless. They changed the packaging! They tricked me! Or did they? It was right there in miniature print at the very bottom on the back of the box, “new packaging, same great taste!”
I didn’t see it because I wasn’t looking. And far too often we are not looking, but we must learn to do so. Our limited understanding of our own self-interests may unconsciously be leading us towards decisions that we wouldn’t consciously make; instead of broadening our understanding of these self-interests, we quite often do not even acknowledge them. We are called to make that which is implicit, explicit, because whatever leads us to make the decisions we do must be understood. These decisions affect a great deal — our present and future, and those around us.
Alright, perhaps my cereal decision didn’t impact the lives of anyone around me (with the exception of my new dentist), but my vote for Obama did. I didn’t vote until he was up for election, as I’d never before been moved to do so. But I believed in the shiny package that was Obama, I thought he was the one who was going to make all the difference. The day I voted I sent my father a text that read, “Hey Wabes (yeah, that’s what I call my dad) I just went out and cancelled your vote with mine. Obama or BUST (aka Canada)!” And boy was I proud of myself; but Obama isn’t what’s wrong with this country, nor is he what is right. We are. All of us. We must take responsibility; we must read the package and see beyond the shiny distractions meant to have us look no further; we must choose to become informed.
I’m not asking that you ‘put down the idealism and slowly back away’; one needn’t become disenchanted to decide to adopt an extra bit of curiosity. When something seems like the right choice, or someone the right candidate — the change that the world needs — perhaps indeed it is, or they are. But don’t let our discovery stop there; take the time to look further, to ask questions, to have conversations and to challenge the “packaging.” Rip open the box, dig to the bottom and see for yourself if the golden horse exists. That’s what living democracy is all about. It’s participatory and it’s asking you and me to get involved. Now.
We must organize in productive ways. There is a far-reaching power in that. Organizing has the potential to propel our mission forward. Saul Alinsky said this: “The understanding of what constitutes a genuine native, indigenous leader is rarely found among conventional social do-gooders,” and he was right. Sometimes you have to cross the lines, create some mole-holes in the pristine lawns of our current democratic system, and call attention to yourself, to your ideas.
Shannon Hoffman writes for PeaceVoice, studies democracy at Portland State University, and is a health care professional.