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.




Take it easy, but take it

"This world is your world.  Take it easy but take it."

Woody Guthrie


As a card-carrying member of the college educated club,

Much of the policy talk sounds like "blah-blah-blah-blah" to me too! Process equals governance -- and there's plenty of people who want to go to Washington and deal with the dirty details.

I must admit my lack of experience in supporting governance -- I haven't been alive (or politically aware) for people whose governance that I could support until now.

Perhaps that is the disconnect that many folks have with the campaign versus governance and organizing -- Is it harder to organize when you (at least ostensibly) are controlling some of the levers of power?

What OFA has done

Jeremy Bird had a column at Huffington Post that describes ini detail what OFA achieved this year.

I have seen a couple of blog posts claiming OFA doesn't do anything but on reading them, it seems that the authors have confused ideas about what an organization like OFA can be expected to achieve, or how the Democratic Party would actually use it.


A thought that comes to mind regarding this activist/organizer tension involves self image and big picture. I was watching the Soderbergh film "Che" last night. Besides the fact that Benicio del Toro has uncannily captured the voice and aspect of the real man, there is one throw-away scene while Che is NYC speaking before the UN General Assembly. A young translator comes up to him at the end of an evening and asks if el Comandante wouldn't mind if he, the translator, took the evening off. Che's quietly withering retort is that no one is indispensable--in the revolution or movement.

Now, regardless of what you think about Che (myth or man) or the film/hagiography, there is something indispensable about that truism--and this is something all too conveniently forgotten by the often-misplaced or mis-understood "empowerment" of the blogosphere or the netroots, where too many voices self-style themselves as the revolution or movement or whatever they think they are working/wishing for--instead of what they are: just voices. There is much hand-wringing now about 2010 prospects for Democratic majorities in Congress and the Obama agenda, and there is much hinting of hand-sitting by the pontificators in the blogosphere, but there is also precious little calling people to action--to do something...Anything! This is the disconnect we also saw during the primaries with such delicious ironies and outcomes.

As many have spoken about here, part of this problem stems from the "value" ostensibly placed on words vs actions. Words and arguments--especially in the realm of policy analyses for this or that--carry much too much value in the web-enabled progressive/(pick your label) community. Too many people  who are not policy experts want to claim that they are--at least too soon in their own formal/informal learning process. The same is true for the analysis of "politics." As we learn from Homer and the Greek tragedians or even W. B. Yeats, the real Hero was the man/woman of both words and actions. (As Yeats said, his goal to was "to hold in single thought reality and justice." Seamus Heaney's take on this is to note that "once in a lifetime tidal wave" in which "hope and history rhyme.") The key is this: actions are not just words.

Now, words/arguments/analyses are important, even vital. But a movement does not stop with a diary comment on Kos, and no commentator/pontificator is "indispensable," as Benicio del Toro says. That's why the call to action, "Yes We Can/Si se puede" both was and IS so powerful and timeless.

And a final point, for me, the true power in that phrase is not just in its prospective, forward-looking nature, but in its fundamental humility. It is not calling a shot--yes we will--or assuming that we are already on the mountain top. Rather it cultivates the ground beneath our feet for a vision of the future that we can make real, and it reminds us that we may/will never make it to that mountain top. May we all pick up the thread of that call into the future--yes we can/si se puede--that is 2010.


The Present does the Future make

Beware of the Present lest it stands in the way of your Future!

Eyes set on open Falls, heels dug in wherewithals...;
Foresight and seeds of Wisdom, claim we for treasure:
Let Him heed Darwin's call, let Him stand grass root tall...!


51+ weeks ago: Inaugural

51+ weeks ago: Inaugural Poem January 20, 2009 The following is a transcript of the inaugural poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” written and recited by Elizabeth Alexander, as provided by Graywolf Press. Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each other’s eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair. Someone is trying to make music somewhere, with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum, with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice. A woman and her son wait for the bus. A farmer considers the changing sky. A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin. We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed, words to consider, reconsider. We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of some one and then others, who said I need to see what’s on the other side. I know there’s something better down the road. We need to find a place where we are safe. We walk into that which we cannot yet see. Say it plain: that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of. Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign, the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables. Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself, others by first do no harm or take no more than you need. What if the mightiest word is love? Love beyond marital, filial, national, love that casts a widening pool of light, love with no need to pre-empt grievance. In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, any thing can be made, any sentence begun. On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp, praise song for walking forward in that light.

OFA = Obama for America

It appears to me, that Micah sees 13 million people, compiled in an organized way, and would like for them to be able to push for, or against whatever, he or those 13 million people want.  So, since Micah doesn't like Summers, it appears that he feels OFA should have the freedom to organize against Summers.  I suppose that would be nice, but if you're President Obama, why would you want that?  Obama did not create OFA to be some rogue organization.  And anyone who thought that was the plan is/was kidding themselves.  I am a volunteer for OFA and I see my involvement as being part of an effort to help the president.  If I agree with the task of the moment, I get involved.  If I don't, I sit out or get involved in another organization that has a position I agree with.  But at no time have I thought I should be able to use OFA contrary to the president and his agenda/administration.  So if I don't like Summers, I don't turn to OFA to organize a "dump Summers" campaign.  If I have an issue that is contrary to the president's position, I seek other organizations.  And unfortunately, many organizations don't have the potential like OFA, or the resources, so I think that's the source of Micah's frustration.  He sees the potential of OFA to be a blanket progressive grassroots organization.  But it has been and for the foreseeable future is, firstly, an Obama focused organization.  

President Obama is a politician.  He is currently the president of the United States.  He presumably wants to get reelected in 2014.  Those 13 million people are his core supporters...people he intends to tap for political help, primarily for his reelection.  To make sure they are still around, he needs them focused on him and his issues, which he tailors toward what our issues are.

Right now, OFA is a grassroots POLITICAL organization meant to get and keep citizens engaged around a goal of helping President Obama push his governing agenda.  Last year OFA's goal was to get and keep citizens engaged around a goal of helping candidate Obama get elected.  Like it or not, Obama is the focus of OFA, and I don't think it is fair to criticize him or the organization for being too focused on Obama.  Right now, OFA is just not intended to become too separated from Obama, and once again, I don't see that as a bad thing, nor do I think it should come as a surprise to anyone.  It was his and his team's brainchild, he built the group up, he cultivated the support, he gave supporters tools, and so I don't see why anyone should expect him to let the organization he built to just go off on it's own and do whatever it wants, even if its against him.  We are all free to do what we want, and if you don't agree with Obama's agenda, or how he's governing, you can leave OFA, you can work within OFA to advance your ideas, or you can start your very own OFA using the things you learned.

I imagine that should OFA succeed, and once Obama's terms have finished, the group can be much more collaborative in terms of policy ideas, and things of that nature.  But right now, for what Obama needs as president, he cannot have his grassroots group that is meant to support him, not taking it's cues from him.

Well said and spot on.



Thanks for a reality based take on this. Excellent as always.


Be well and cheers

Thanks for the video.  I

Thanks for the video.  I had read Micah's post about the "disconnect" and took it seriously.  Now I can see the poutrage for what it is.  You either work to get what you want or you sit around and complain that nobody gave you a pony.  That's all there is.

...darkest before the dawn redux...

If you haven't read Charlie Hardy's Notebook Entry:


I have reposted my comment because I am directly involved with OFA because it is involved with direct support of Prez. Obama.  Al has, once again, read the grass roots correctly.  If you are having a chicken little moment, make some calls for Martha and your neighbor.  Prez. Obama will be in MA today, doing his part.  Tomorrow is ML King Day.  Can I get a 'Yes We Can'?


Thanks for the insight, Charlie.  Frank, great comments and food for thought.

I was just thinking this morning that the Senate race in MA, USA, must be a win for Ms. Coakley.  If readers have friends/folks in MA, please make a call to them and encourage them to vote this Tuesday.  If you have more time to spare, here's the link for OFA.  We are calling supporters of President Obama in MA.  This vote is critical to making sure a healthcare bill is passed.

MA has a history of voting for Republicans.  I can't get Ted Kennedy out of my head.

OFA has also been getting lots of lousy stories about how it's not working, etc.  I'm still involved.  Grass roots.  Can you make some calls?



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About Al Giordano


Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.

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