In a basement conference room at the Codman Square Health Center yesterday morning, Lew Finfer did what he's been doing for almost four decades: community organizing. This time that meant leading a meeting of 20 representatives of grass-roots and nonprofit organizations from Dorchester and Mattapan to mobilize city residents against a ballot question that would abolish the state's personal income tax.
Finfer's profession took center stage at the Republican convention in St. Paul this week when Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, the vice presidential nominee, and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani mocked Democrat Barack Obama's experience as a community organizer in Chicago. "Community organizer," Guiliani shrugged. "What?" Palin likened her former job as mayor of an Anchorage suburb to being "sort of like a 'community organizer,' except that you have actual responsibilities."
With that, Palin and Giuliani ridiculed a tradition whose roots in this country reach back to the Boston Tea Party and organizers' successful efforts to persuade colonists to boycott tea to protest taxation without representation. ACORN, a nationwide network of community organizations, issued a statement condemning the GOP's "condescending remarks." Anti-Palin T-shirts emblazoned with "Jesus was a community organizer; Pontius Pilate was a governor" appeared for sale online almost immediately.
Community organizers in Boston and beyond have taken offense at the barbs from St. Paul.
"You get angry that somebody is disrespectful of what you've done all your life," said Finfer, director of the Massachusetts Community Action Network. "Community organizing is what the civil rights movement was. The key people were community organizers who worked for Martin Luther King Jr. and with him. Sarah Palin held up that her husband was a union member. Unions have organizers."
"Without organizers things don't happen," said Marvin Martin, 54, director of Dorchester's Greater Four Corners Action Coalition. "Ideas often come from the community. People who organize bring ideas to the legislators and work with them to pass it. If they don't understand that, I'm concerned with how they make decisions."
Marshall Ganz, a lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, sees an irony in Palin's remark. "The very politics that Palin and McCain have rooted their appeal in are the result of a social movement on the right, the conservative movement, which was organized by organizers, too," he said.
For Finfer, 57, the comments conjured memories. In 1991 a former intern recommended that Finfer recruit a Harvard Law School classmate who had been a community organizer in Chicago. The classmate's name was Barack Obama. The young law student came for an interview.
"He said, 'I learned a lot about organizing, but I'm interested in going back to Chicago and getting into politics,' " Finfer said. "I joke that I'm glad that I wasn't successful."
To Finfer and his colleagues, organizing entails reaching out to members of disenfranchised communities, learning about them and their issues, then mobilizing and empowering them to address those issues. "The ability of a community to survive and understand its power and make changes happen is the responsibility of the community organization," said Dawn Nardi, 35, lead organizer with United Interfaith Action in Fall River.
While Finfer was meeting on the "Vote No on Question 1" campaign, community organizing of a different sort was occurring on Perrin Street in Roxbury. In a demonstration called by City Life/Vida Urbana, 50 people tried to block an eviction. Police arrested four protesters who chained themselves to a railing.
City Life organizer Stephen Meacham wasn't surprised by the Republicans' comments. "Community organizers by their very nature are organizing the grassroots against power," Meacham said, "and generally speaking power doesn't like that."
Mimi Ramos, director of Massachusetts ACORN, works 50 hours a week for a salary of $30,000. "They shouldn't be bashing other folks' hard work," she said. "I'm 26 years old. I'm a single mom from Boston. We've worked to raise the minimum wage, fight for health care for all, issues that affect low-income and moderate-income families who wouldn't be at the table without ACORN and other community organizations."
Mark Pedulla, manager of organizing and policy initiatives of the Hyde Square Task Force in Jamaica Plain, works on youth organizing. "Organizers stand with people at the most difficult moments of their lives, whether that's a job loss, an eviction, youth violence," he said.
Behind the comments of Palin and Giuliani is Obama himself and the attention to community organizing generated by his candidacy. "It's very emotional for me to hear him talk about being an organizer," said Nardi, the community organizer in Fall River.
Perhaps more important than the attention is Obama's use of grass-roots organizing. The Kennedy School's Ganz, whose resume includes community organizing in the civil rights and farm workers' movements, is helping Obama's campaign train workers in community organizing.
Ganz predicts Palin's comment will backfire. "One thing it's done is galvanize a reaction from grassroots organizers all over the country like I've never seen," he said. "These are the people who are going to organize the vote for Obama."