On the Streets of Chicago, a Candidate Comes of Age
As a community organizer, Obama was a pragmatic leader
CHICAGO—Far from the centers of power and privilege that have spawned so many commanders in chief, it's an unlikely place to incubate a future president. But the seemingly endless clumps of drab brick apartment buildings and patchy lawns on Chicago's South Side are where Sen. Barack Obama learned some of his most enduring lessons about politics, leadership, and the paths to social change. His experiences here, in fact, amount to a Rosetta stone that reveals the essence of the man who has catapulted out of nowhere into contention for the Democratic presidential nomination for 2008.
As a community organizer in the Altgeld Gardens public housing project in the mid-1980s, Obama, then 23, quickly emerged as a tireless and pragmatic advocate for the community—traits that characterize the kind of president he says he wants to be. "His work as a community organizer was really a defining moment in his life, not just his career," his wife, Michelle, told U.S. News. It helped him decide "how he would impact the world"—assisting people in defining their mutual interests and working together to improve their lives.
Listening. In a speech in February announcing his presidential bid, Obama said, "It was in these neighborhoods that I received the best education I ever had." His work, he added, "taught me a lot about listening to people as opposed to coming in with a predetermined agenda."
Today, the experiences at Altgeld Gardens echo throughout his campaign. His support last week for allowing Cuban-Americans to increase their contact with relatives in Cuba was an extension of his outreach to both friends and foes in Chicago. The same is true of his pledge to meet as president without preconditions with leaders of rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea. His critics called him naive, but his admirers say it was another example of Obama's commitment to seeking common ground.
After graduating from Columbia University in 1983 with a major in political science, Obama worked as a financial consultant in New York City. But he was bored—and drawn to public service. In 1985, he moved to Chicago to work with local churches organizing job training and other programs for poor and working-class residents of Altgeld Gardens, a public housing project where 5,300 African-Americans tried to survive amid shuttered steel mills, a nearby landfill, a putrid sewage treatment plant, and a pervasive feeling that the white establishment of Chicago would never give them a fair shake.
Jerry Kellman, a social activist who recruited Obama, recalls, "He was very bright, very articulate, very personable, and very idealistic," inspired by civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.'s philosophy of nonviolence. Kellman offered Obama a job at the annual salary of $10,000, and he threw in $2,000 so Obama could buy a ramshackle car to get around.
Obama was a stranger to the area but caught on quickly by showing humility and a strong work ethic. "We knew what was wrong in the community but we didn't know how to get something done about it," recalls Yvonne Lloyd, 78, who worked with Obama. Obama insisted on "staying in the background while he empowered us." By Obama's own admission, there were few big victories. But whether it was getting the city to fill potholes, provide summer jobs, or remove asbestos from the apartments or persuading the apartment managers to repair toilets, pipes, and ceilings, Obama encouraged residents to come up with their own priorities with the gentle admonition: "It's your community."
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."
This story appears in the September 3, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.