On the Streets of Chicago, a Candidate Comes of Age
As a community organizer, Obama was a pragmatic leader
Newcomer. David Kindler, a colleague at the time, said the lanky newcomer with the funny name understood that a community organizer is a combination of educator, confessor-priest, social activist, motivational expert, mediator, and campaign leader. To accomplish his mission, Obama spent hours with Altgeld residents one on one, learning their problems and their dreams, and he resisted taking credit for success, preferring to give it to individuals in the community.
Obama lived a few miles away in a modest Hyde Park apartment, but he quickly became part of "the Gardens" community. He played pickup basketball. He walked from house to house to discuss what needed fixing. Wearing his trademark outfit of neatly pressed slacks and button-down shirts with no tie, he spent many hours meeting in kitchens, parlors, and churches.
Many of the older women took a liking to him. They fed him cookies, invited him for dinner, and introduced him to their friends—and their marriage-minded daughters. "I called him my little skinny boy," says Lloyd. "He was so thin, we wanted to fatten him up, but we couldn't do it."
Some critics say that if he wins the presidency, the partisan divisions and rancor of Washington would quickly overwhelm him. But his wife, also a lawyer, says Altgeld gave him the skills to bring Washington's warring factions together. "Barack is not one of those people who fight for the sake of fighting," says Michelle Obama. He's "willing to do it when it's necessary," but he knows "you have to keep the door open" to deal with the other side.
Perhaps his most confrontational effort was to pressure city authorities to remove asbestos from the apartments in 1986. When the on-site manager didn't take action, Obama nudged the residents into confronting city housing officials in two angry public meetings downtown. These generated "a victory of sorts," Obama said later, as workers soon began sealing the asbestos in the buildings. But the project gradually ran out of steam and money. In fact, some tenants still have asbestos in their homes, according to current resident Linda Randle, 53, who worked with Obama in the '86 anti-asbestos campaign.
Faced with such frustrations, after three years in Chicago, Obama decided to apply his skills in the wider world. He entered Harvard Law School in 1988, became the first African-American president of Harvard Law Review in 1990, and earned his law degree in 1991. He returned to Chicago to work as a civil rights lawyer and teach at the University of Chicago Law School. He eventually won a seat in the Illinois State Senate and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004.
As he faces his biggest challenge yet, his friends at "the Gardens" don't see Obama's reaching for the White House as a strange move at all. "He has a great understanding of people," says Randle, "and he knows how to bring about change through compromise. That's what we need in Washington."