In what Politico acknowledges is the "ultimate irony," former community organizer-turned-President of the United States Barack Obama has found himself in an uncomfortable public feud with community organizers in his hometown Chicago, who are using the tactics he once used himself against the "establishment."
The feud centers around the building of the Obama library and demands by community organizations that Obama's foundation agree to a community benefits agreement which would require investments in or hiring from the community in which the structure will be built.
The pushback has been strong enough that Obama felt compelled to address the issue personally — a move that only further "infuriated" one particularly vocal organizer, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization education director Jeanette Taylor.
The blowup began back in September when Taylor and almost a dozen other community organizers "camped out overnight" to be able to address their concerns about the Obama Center. Thinking they were only going to get to talk to the foundation's staff, the activists soon found themselves speaking to Obama himself via video conference. Politico describes the scene:
“The library is a great idea, but what about a community benefits agreement?” Taylor asked, referring to a contract between a developer and community organizations that requires investments in, or hiring from, a neighborhood where a project is built. “The first time investment comes to black communities, the first to get kicked out is low-income and working-class people. Why wouldn’t you sign a CBA to protect us?”
Measured as always, Obama began by telling Taylor, “I was a community organizer.” Then he said, “I know the neighborhood. I know that the minute you start saying, ‘Well, we’re thinking about signing something that will determine who’s getting jobs and contracts and this and that’ … next thing I know, I’ve got 20 organizations coming out of the woodwork.”
So did Obama's "measured" response quiet Taylor's concerns? Far from it. In fact, Politico underscores that his statement "infuriated" her. The issue hits particularly close to home for her because she's afraid Obama's center will drive up her own rent costs by improving the value of neighborhood residences, an effect referred to by activists as "gentrification."
"He got a lot of nerve saying that," Taylor told Politico. "He forgotten who he is. He forgot the community got him where he is."
Politico notes that Taylor represents one of more than a dozen similar community-focused organizations, exactly the kinds of organizations Obama helped lead before his political career took off. Even the academic community has gotten on board with the battle against Obama, with over 100 University of Chicago faculty members signing a letter in support of the groups' demand that the Obama Center commit to invest in the surrounding neighborhoods.
The Obama Foundation did sign a private agreement with contractors mandating minority hiring, but Chicago's activists say that's not enough and suggest that before he became "part of the establishment," he would've agreed:
Back when Obama was a community organizer, a project was known as a “piece.” His successful campaign to pressure the Chicago Housing Authority into removing asbestos from Altgeld Gardens and the Ida B. Wells Homes was “the asbestos piece.” (Obama even chartered a school bus to Housing Authority headquarters, where Altgeld residents sat in the hallway outside the director’s office, insisting he visit the projects. He did.) Coalition organizers believe their campaign is exactly the kind of piece Obama himself would have worked on when he was in their position, 30 years ago. But that was then: before Harvard, before politics, before the presidency. For them, Obama has gone from sticking it to the man to … being the man.
“Of course, he would have,” says Jeanette Taylor. “But now he’s part of the establishment.”