Book: Obama Tells Radical Community Organizer (and Former Boss) 'I'm Still Organizing'

Obama’s Alinsky-Style Power Analysis

New York Times columnist Jodi Kantor’s book, The Obamas, tries very, very hard to paint a sympathetic picture of her eponymous subject matter–she gets her digs in against the supposedly racist tea party everywhere she can–but every once and a while the truth cracks through. Take this interview at the Texas Book Festival for example:

The Obamas often don’t mingle freely – they often just stand behind the rope and reach out to shake hands but he sees Jerry Kellman, his old community organizing boss, and he’s so happy to see him he reaches across and pulls him in. And Obama says, “I’m still organizing.” It was a stunning moment and when [Kellman] told me the story, it had echoes of what Valerie Jarrett had told me once – “The senator still thinks of himself as a community organizer.” How fully has this guy resolved himself to what he’s really doing? On the one hand, he’s passing these backroom deals to pass health care reform, but on the other he’s telling his old boss he’s still a community organizer. I think that plays into what will happen in the 2012 race.

Jerry Kellman was Barack Obama’s former boss, a student of Saul Alinsky’s in the 1970s, and a permanent fixture of the progressive left in Chicago.

While some have downplayed Obama’s connections to Saul Alinsky, Kellman’s link is pretty easy to discern.


Here he is talking about his relationship with left-wing activism, Alinksy and Obama in Illinois Issues, a student magazine, for example:

Kellman arrived in Chicago again in 1970, this time to stay for the long haul. He began an education in community organizing at a school run by Saul Alinsky, the late Chicagoan considered by many as the modern practice’s father.

Alinsky was a radical, but his method of reaching the core of people’s needs and concerns through one-on-one interviews influenced many organizers, perhaps most notably Obama.

In 1988, Obama wrote an article for Illinois Issues, “Problems and promise in the inner city,” about his experiences as an organizer in and around Chicago. In it, he describes how nowhere was the promise of organizing more apparent than in the traditional black churches. The piece later became part of the book After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois.

Kellman drew a lot from Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation, including methods to analyze how power is obtained, and used this knowledge while taking on the mortgage banking industry on Chicago’s west side, in addition to other endeavors.

Not surprisingly, Kellman has a signed copy of Barack Obama’s Dreams of My Father on his desk, with the message, “To Jerry, a friend and a mentor.”

Some of us wish Obama had different friends and mentors.

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