Empowerment Is Not Given, It Is Taken
By Al Giordano
A small dust-up on the Internet has come of late from Micah Sifry’s December 31 blog entry, The Obama Disconnect: What Happens when Myth Meets Reality. It’s the topic of much discussion on this recent edition of GritTV with Laura Flanders.
Since I invited Micah to Chicago last November, two days after the US elections, to participate in the DePaul University forum on “The Organizing of the President,” I feel I must weigh in with my own very different conclusions after this past year of lived experience.
I think Micah is making a terribly politically naïve error in judgment if he thinks (or thought) that Organizing for America (OfA) – the descendant of Obama’s campaign field organization – would ever be, or should ever be, some kind of power sharing, policy setting, citizen parliament.
I would also agree with Flanders’ suggestion in the video above that Micah was being quite patronizing when he referred to Karoli Kuns - who differed with Sifry during that televised discussion - as being a “good trooper” because she’s content with the direction of Organizing for America, a movement she has been involved with, unlike its critics and bemoaners.
OfA had two major projects in 2009, its virgin year. The first was organizing public support for the economic stimulus bill – at the time the largest public works project in decades, maybe ever. The second was its game-changing role in getting health care reform to pass the senate by one vote on Christmas Eve, legislation that probably marks the single largest government-ordered redistribution of wealth in decades in the US (something that, because it includes private sector insurance companies as the administrators of that redistribution of wealth, others can’t quite wrap their brains around).
What I have in common with Micah is I believe in empowerment of the people. But he seems to be acting against his own best instincts when he keeps asking or demanding that someone up above – a US president, or his political lieutenants – empower the people on the people’s behalf. That’s not how it works. Empowerment is never given. It is taken. In effect, he’s asking for permission to be empowered. How disempowering is that?
I also think, based on my long experience as a community organizer, that Micah overestimates the amount of time and energy working Americans have for “decision making” meetings and processes and such of the kind that he seems to think would be swell for OfA. My experience organizing among regular non-college educated people of many regions is that they view group process as I do: a lot of blah blah blah by some people who fall too in love with their own voices in the microphone. The moment the process freaks take control of any venture, the workers leave. That’s my ground level experience.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with the Stimulus Bill of early ’09 or the Health Care Reform bill of late ’09, it would be folly to suggest that they were not massive triumphs for Organizing for America.
OfA accomplished a lot in 2009.
What the hell did its “friendly critics” accomplish during that same year, other than a lot of whining when they, too, could have been out organizing at a grassroots level?
Micah, amigo: Did Organizing for America prevent you or me or anyone else from going out there and organizing among our fellow and sister workers, our neighbors or anyone else this past year?
Speaking strictly for me, 2009 was a banner year for organizing my trade of authentic journalists internationally, and 2010 looks even brighter on that front. Part of that is the result of the new environment we organize in: A change has come. Those that insist otherwise are merely revealing their own inability or unwillingness to use it to their own organizing efforts' advantage.
See, I’ve never asked anyone for permission, or waited from orders from headquarters, to do what I think is necessary at any given moment.
And I would politely suggest that if more of the complainers and poutragers were to do the same, instead of worrying about what others do or don’t do up above, they would feel and be much less discouraged, and more self-empowered, too.