Sarah Palin and Community Activism

5 09 2008

During her speech on Wednesday night at the GOP convention, Governor Sarah Palin thought she delivered a saucy zinger of a line when she said, ” I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities.”  That line was entirely intended to compliment another observation:

I might add that, in small towns, we don’t quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they’re listening and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren’t listening.

No, we tend to prefer candidates who don’t talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco.

Fair enough, if that’s what she thinks. After all, its better to know what she thinks before Election Day. But that remark offended a good many other conscientious Americans of all political stripes, including active conservatives. In 2004 the Bush campaign relentlessly courted a number of very partisan conservative community organizers who were courted by the Bush administration to help register and turn out voters.

And as the New York Times noted a few years ago in Missouri:

The Bush campaign is seeking to rally conservative churches and their members to help turn out sympathetic voters this fall, and West County Assembly of God, a 600-member evangelical congregation in a Republican district of a pivotal swing state, is on the front lines of the effort

[snip]

They inform church members about socially conservative electoral issues. They register them to vote at stands outside the sanctuary on designated ”voter registration” Sundays. Last week, the ”moral action team” even drove church members to the polls, and they plan to do the same for this fall’s general election as well.

So, as you can imagine some conservatives activists are perplexed by such an unprovoked jab at their efforts. Bishop Roy Dixon of a conservative Southern Californian church and a local San Diego activist recently said:

As a life-long Republican, the comments I heard last night about community organizing crossed the line. It is one thing to question someone’s experience, another to demean the work of millions of hard working Americans who take time to get involved in their communities. When people come together in my church hall to improve our community, they’re building the Kingdom of God in San Diego. We see the fruits of community organizing in safer streets, new parks, and new affordable housing. It’s the spirit of democracy for people to have a say and we need more of it.

But politics aside community activism has lead to some of the greatest American innovations and some of the finest expressions of our democracy. They help families in their local communities stay together, assist in keeping our streets safer and cleaner, our schools more productive, our nation unified in times of war and division. And as a Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights recently noted:

The United States has had a long and proud history of contributions made by community organizers, from Benjamin Franklin who organized the first volunteer fire department in this country to Clara Barton, who organized assistance for soldiers during the Civil War, to Martin Luther King, Jr., who helped our great nation correct a historic wrong. Over the years, many more community organizers have brought changes to American society that benefit all of us.

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