As never before in recent memory, all eyes are on the presidential election. And for Blue Avocado readers, part of the reason is that one of the candidates – Barack Obama – comes from the nonprofit sector. While presidential candidates typically begin their careers at private law firms or in government, Obama chose to begin his as an organizer and antipoverty advocate for a community-based nonprofit. His wife Michelle is a former nonprofit executive director. Other presidential candidates have shared Obama’s commitment to civil rights, community empowerment and economic justice. But Obama is the first major candidate to have come from on-the-ground nonprofit work.
Veteran journalist Deborah Bolling spoke with antipoverty nonprofit folk to learn how they are reacting to a fellow nonprofiteer running for president.
When Senator Barack Obama rose to occupy center stage during his appearance at the Democratic National Convention four years ago, most Americans never imagined the spotlight he commanded then would shine even brighter now.
After a protracted primary battle with perhaps a remarkably formidable candidate, Obama has emerged as the presumptive Democratic nominee for president of the United States.
Obama’s unexpected ascension is marked by at least three historical precedents: He is the first African American nominee of a major political party; he was raised in Hawai’i by a white, single mother, and he got his political chops working as a community organizer for nonprofit agencies.
Some speculate that should Obama become president, his unique background could provide a lift to the nonprofit community.
â€œI do believe his presidency will stimulate the nonprofit sector,â€ says Milwaukee nonprofiteer Paul Schmitz.
Candidate Opted for a Nonprofit Career
Most political observers agree Obama is a fresh face. He’s offering a new perspective to a nation whose leadership has more often come from wealthier and more privileged backgrounds. And the 46-year-old Illinois senator’s resume, considered “thin” by pundits nationwide, is definitely unique.
As a young college graduate, Obama passed over the high salaries he could have commanded in corporate life, choosing instead to move to the South Side of Chicago, where he worked with churches, residents and local government. His early commitment to the nonprofit sector has continued to shape and characterize his leadership style.
Paul met Obama 15 years ago. It was one year after Obama became a founding board member of Public Allies, a nonprofit that identifies talented young adults from diverse backgrounds and prepares them for careers working for community and social change. The next year, the candidate’s wife, Michelle Obama, launched Public Allies Chicago, becoming its founding executive director. Paul – CEO of Public Allies – says he believes both Obamas are prone to support nonprofit sector efforts which actively engage the public.
Community Organizing in the Campaign
“For me, it’s clear that Barack and Michelle understand how to build an organization from the grassroots,” Paul says. “Look at the way he organized his campaign. They engaged in civic engagement, including the recruitment of thousands of volunteers. His campaign mobilized 1.7 million donors. He’s assembled young, old; black, white; rich and poor. That effort was driven by community organizing – not political organizing.”
Paul sits on the boards of the UW-Milwaukee Helen Bader Institute for Nonprofit Management, the Nonprofit Sector Workforce Coalition and the steering committee for Voices for National Service. While Paul says he is not an endorser of an Obama presidency, he believes a civic engagement agenda could emerge from an Obama White House.
“Barack has been focusing on ideas that show he’s trying to figure out how the sector will fare,” Paul concludes. “They’ll be working in this space; playing in our sandboxes, so to speak.”
An Antipoverty Perspective?
Others point to Obama’s perspective on poverty and income disparity as a welcome contribution to the political discourse.
“Barack Obama would be the first president in U.S. history to have grown up in a family that used food stamps,” says Joel Berg.
Joel is the executive director of New York Coalition Against Hunger, a nonprofit organization representing more than 1,200 soup kitchens and food pantries in New York City, and serving more than one million low-income New Yorkers.
Although NYCAH does not engage in political activity, Joel says that in his personal view, Obama’s life and work experiences afford him an uncommon edge and insight when understanding the pressing domestic issues Americans now face.
“Obama grew up in poverty and I believe he can combat poverty,” Joel says. “His antipoverty plan is comprehensive. It resonates with us. … I know that presidential leadership can make a great difference. John Kennedy made poverty an issue in his presidential campaign, and from 1960 through 1973, the poverty rate in America was cut in half.”
During the 1990s, Joel worked in the Clinton administration, under five separate posts. He says when he was tasked with launching the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s sponsorship of AmeriCorps programs to fight hunger, he became deeply involved in hunger issues and a committed poverty advocate. The eight years were consumed by a bruising battle to win a single, seemingly incremental budgetary increase.
â€œBut,â€ Joel says, â€œit helped 10 million people.â€
Attention Must Be Paid
Since 1996, George Jones has been the executive director of Bread for the City, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit offering services such as food, clothing, medical care and legal and social services to District residents.
George says the average yearly income for families served by his agency is $7,000; he says this year, due to increased economic strains, Bread for the City has provided aid to 10,000 more people than it served last year.
As he considers the possibility of an Obama presidency, George says he’s optimistic: “Obama’s election could mean amazing things in the war on poverty,” George says. “It sounds like he’s willing to, and interested in, engaging the body politic on this incredibly important issue.”
Illinois, Kansas and Hawai’i – states where Obama has lived or has family ties – all consider him a favorite son. Could Obama be the nonprofit sector’s favorite son as well? Would a â€œnonprofit presidentâ€ make a difference for the nation’s tens of thousands of community groups?
George remains cautious about any U.S. president addressing a key concern of many nonprofiteers: the needs of America’s low-income people.
Still, George says, Obama holds promise.
â€œYes. We. Can. is almost a question for me,â€ he says. â€œHow much change can [Obama] affect? There are clear obstacles â€¦ but forget solutions. I’d be happy just to see some attention paid to income disparity and other domestic issues. The hope for change hasn’t been as high in the past 30 years.â€
Deborah Bolling, a commentator at WAMU 88.5 in Washington, DC, where she also coordinates the station’s Youth Voices program, has worked in film, television and print journalism. She has produced music videos, reported for South African radio, been a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia City Paper, contributed as a freelancer to Newsday and the New York Times, and served on the communications staff of Philadelphia Mayor John Street.