Chi-Town Activists? Joke Is On GOP

10/05/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Yeah, that Jane Addams was a funny gal. Who wouldn't laugh at a community organizer who spent her adult life feeding hungry, homeless children and fighting for social reform? Founder of Hull House? Nobel Peace Prize winner? Please, enough with the jokes.

What's that you say? It's not funny. You're right. Only someone with a sick sense of humor would deride activists who toil in Chicago's worst neighborhoods, dedicating time and effort to providing poor and disenfranchised citizens with a voice in the political and social process.

Someone with a warped view like Sarah Palin, the Republican Party's newly-crowned vice-presidential nominee. Or Rudy Giuliani, who lusted for the GOP's presidential nod, but instead settled for making a keynote speech Wednesday before the party hopefuls.

Speaking to the convention, Sarah and Rudy poked fun at Democratic opponent Barack Obama's background as a community organizer from Chicago's inner-city. In doing so, they also derided the importance of such activism--slights that got the crowd yukking it up on cue.

I expect this duo to disagree with and attack the Democratic presidential candidate's politics and record. But it's a cheap, cheap shot to deride Obama's background as a community organizer, while in the same breath also diminishing the crucial role such activism has long had on improving Chicago and the world. Perhaps they can take their eyes off of the GOP talking points to reflect on the contributions such activists have made. As Sarah and Rudy chided Chicago activism, I recalled scores of community organizers who've made huge contributions by following in Jane Addams footsteps.

I thought of the late Florence Scala. This daughter of an Italian tailor gave the first Mayor Richard Daley fits when he set out to bulldoze her West Side neighborhood and build the University of Illinois. Scala didn't prevail against the mighty machine and took some knocks during her tussle with City Hall. But she also scored some important victories. Along the way, this brave yet modest woman--who later in life refused to have libraries or parks named after her--left a legacy and blue print for taking on the powerful and vested interests.

Then there's Gail Cincotta, a feisty and formidable fair housing advocate who dueled with the downtown banking giants over their redlining practices. Cincotta, who died a few years ago, was instrumental in forming a coalition of housing advocates that forced the banks--which were closing inner-city branches and heading for the suburbs--to end the exodus. Cincotta did the impossible. She convinced stubborn and fearful downtown bank executives that reinvesting in urban areas was also good business. To make that case, Gail and her cohorts did tons of protesting, picketing and lobbying outside bank buildings and at annual shareholder meetings.

While Sarah and Rudy chided community activism, I recalled Mary Nelson, founder of Bethel New Life on Chicago's West Side. For decades, Nelson doggedly sought private and charitable funding (she called them "seven layer cakes" of financing) needed to slowly rebuild abandoned buildings that had become havens for drug use and crime. Now, those buildings are spruced up apartments and retail stores. I've seen them.

There's still a long way to go, but progress was made because of those "funny" activists like Scala, Cincotta, Nelson and their backers. There's more that I'm not mentioning. Yet, even if you don't know them personally, you're probably aware of the organizations they helped spawn. They include: the Citizens Utility Board, which strives to keep the power and telecom companies honest; Woodstock Institute, which made lethargic state lawmakers aware of the excesses of payday lenders and the mortgage crisis, and South Shore Bank, which infuses capital and business disciplines into sagging residential properties and commercial districts, revitalizing neighborhoods, states and even other countries. All of these organizations, and many more, continue to fight the good fight at the grassroots level.

Was Barack Obama the most effective community activist Chicago has ever seen? Probably not.
But I wouldn't dare diminish what he choose to do on those city streets. On this score, the Dem's campaign rhetoric is spot on. Obama could have gone straight out of college into the welcoming arms of Wall Street or LaSalle Street and made big bucks. But, he didn't. Instead, he went to work on Chicago's South and West Sides trying to help those who were chronically unemployed and under-represented. You see, that's what community organizers do.

Maybe Sarah, Rudy and the GOP think it's just a punchline designed to degrade Obama's resume. But, seriously folks, that type of work is no joke.