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Through the Eyes of Others

By Kevin Robinson in News on Feb 21, 2007 2:10PM

While Chicagoist was vacationing out west this long holiday weekend, our thoughts turned back briefly to our favorite obsession, politics. When we were hanging out around one of our favorite coffee shops west of the Mississippi, we picked up a copy of the local rag, and read up on all the important news facing readers of that other -Ist. But one story caught our eye, one that has both local and national significance. The Los Angeles Times is reporting that some people feel Obama took a disproportionate amount of credit for the work he did as a community organizer "back in the day." Obama credits his experiences there with shaping his world view and motivation to serve the public in elected office.

2007_2_earth.jpgYou may have heard Obama talk about how he came to Chicago after college to work as a community organizer, and he writes about that experience in his book Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. This story begins with one of the projects that he worked on then, in Altgeld Gardens, one of the public housing communities that hasn't been razed to make way for mixed-income housing and new supermarkets. Built in the 1940's to house black industrial workers and located in the far South Side, Altgeld Gardens is bounded by 130th Street, the Calumet River, the Indiana state border and the Beaubien Forest Preserve. Sometimes referred to as a "toxic doughnut" because it is bounded by a giant landfill, a paint factory, a sewage plant and the polluted Calumet River, it was here that Obama got his first taste of the power of organized people. According to his book, when the residents found out that the Chicago Housing Authority was soliciting bids to remove asbestos from the project, they came to him for advice. Obama writes that he encouraged residents to ask questions of the property management, leading to several confrontational meetings and garnering attention from the media. Ultimately victorious, the Chicago Housing Authority agreed to immediate testing and sent out workers to seal off the substance in the residences. Obama writes of how that moving event changed him.

But some people that were there at the time feel that Obama paints too narrow a picture. According to Hazel Johnson, (and then-Alderman Bobby Rush, who has had a running political feud with Obama since 2000), it was her work at Altgeld Gardens, not Barack's, coupled with a story run by the Chicago Reporter about asbestos in another housing project that moved the city to action. In Obama's defense, he says upfront in his book that conversations are an "approximation of what was actually said or relayed to me," and that some of the characters are "composites of people I've known, and some events appear out of precise chronology." He also says he changed some names for the sake of privacy.

In the final equation, this episode (and you can be sure there is more drama to come) presents us with a difficult question: how do you communicate an event, a people, so far out of your own experience that it has moved you so deeply, and at the same time deal with the tough issues of race and class, without objectifying the people that took you there in the first place? Johnson's daughter Cheryl asks the LA Times rhetorically, "Why would he paint us as so pathetic?" As if in response, another Chicago community organizer, Salim Al Nurridin, told the LA Times "[i]f you were writing your movie, I'm sure you'd be the star."