On Wednesday, Sept. 4, I left work at Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción (Puerto Rican Tenants in Action), a nonprofit community organization in Boston’s South End, and headed home. I turned on CNN and, along with millions of my fellow Americans, tuned into the Republican National Convention. Rudy Giuliani was discussing Barack Obama’s qualifications for president: “He worked as a community organizer” deadpanned Giuliani, who then broke into a fit of laughter and added a derisive “What?”
I can’t say I was shocked or surprised. These are the sort of negative attacks I’ve grown accustomed to over the past eight years. But vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s speech contained more of the same: “I guess a small town mayor is sort of like a community organizer,” she explained, “except that you have actual responsibilities.” The delegates roared with approval.
I’m a youth worker. What this means is that I’m a part-time teacher, mentor, counselor, friend and, yes, community organizer all rolled into one. I work long hours and do not have the money to show for it. I’m not complaining. I love my job, my teens, and the community I work in. And I wasn’t offended by Giuliani’s or Palin’s comments. I laughed it off and didn’t take it personally. But watching the delegates’ response to these backhanded remarks solidified what I already knew: The Republican Party just doesn’t get it.
What does a community do, where do they turn, when they feel that their government has left them behind? When trickle-down economics doesn’t quite trickle down that far? In Barack Obama’s acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination he summed up the economic policies of the Bush administration: “Out of work? Tough luck, you are on your own. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Even if you don’t have boots, you are on your own.”
I work in a neighborhood called Villa Victoria (Victory Village), which just celebrated its 40th birthday. In the late 1960s, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) placed it on the short list for urban renewal. This meant attempting to evict the residents, most of whom were Puerto Rican, bulldozing historic brownstones, and building luxury condos and shopping centers in their place. Around that time a group of community organizers banded together, stood up against the BRA, and established a plan to preserve their neighborhood. The result is a 435-unit affordable housing community, complete with the multiservice agency that I work for.
Our organization addresses the needs of the community and fills in the gaps where local, state and national services end. We have a preschool, after-school programming, ESL and GED programs, community college classes and employment opportunities. I am constantly amazed and inspired by my co-workers, who put in long hours and make great sacrifices because they truly believe in the work they do. They understand what it means to serve their community and their country.
Barack Obama also heard this call to service. You know the story: He graduated from Columbia University and spent three years as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. After finishing Harvard Law School, he directed Project Vote, an organization focused on registering new African-American voters in Illinois. As president of the Harvard Law Review, Obama could have written his own ticket, but he chose to return to his adopted community of Chicago and dedicate his life to public service.
For John McCain, and the Republican Party, this service apparently means nothing. They equate national service with military service; anything else they see as just a joke. At a time when natural disasters are pummeling our shores, our public education system is failing to educate our youth, and my teens are scared to walk down the street because of gang violence, we need our young people to stay in their communities and lend a hand. We can’t afford to have hundreds of thousands of our young men and women scattered around the globe in military uniforms. We need a surge of teachers, a surge of doctors and a surge of green engineers.
While McCain promises that we will stay in Iraq for 10 or even 100 years in order to finish the job, Obama has vowed to expand AmeriCorps positions from 75,000 to 250,000, provide $4,000 college credits for students who commit themselves to 100 hours of community service, and mandate that 25 percent of all federal work study money be spent on service learning. This would put our most promising young people back into our communities, where we need them the most.
John McCain has also served his country. He was asked to fight in Vietnam and he went above and beyond the call of duty. Since then he has worked tirelessly in the House and Senate for nearly three decades. I do not wish to question his exceptional and honorable career. I respect McCain’s service to America. It’s just a shame that he doesn’t respect mine.
Willie Gould can be reached at email@example.com.