Mary Grabar

When I heard that a major part of Barack Obama’s resume included a stint as a “community organizer,” I asked myself what the term meant.

It’s sort of like “activist.”

I had always wondered what the job description for “activist” was. How do you apply? Where do you apply? It was unlike any of the jobs I had had, whether it was pouring beers, serving fish fries, cleaning toilets, pruning in snow-filled vineyards, or marking grammatical errors on freshman essays. The people I had grown up with worked with blow torches, trowels, and brooms, or stooped over sewing machines all day. If you made it, you were a secretary or supervisor at Kodak. If you were really ambitious you went to the community college or state university and became a nurse or an engineer. You could ask your cousin to put in a good word for you with the supervisor at Kodak or General Motors, but whom would you ask to become an “activist” or “community organizer”?

I imagine if someone like Barack Obama had come to Beach Street in Rochester, New York, in the 1960s where my neighbors relaxed on their lawn chairs on front porches and stoops after a hard day in the factory, and said, “Hi, my name is Barry Obama, and I am a community organizer,” the unanimous response would have been, “A what?”

“A community organizer. I’ve come to organize you, your community.”

This would have immediately raised suspicions.

While her husband went upstairs, Mrs. Tischenko would have said, “Our grass don’t need no cutting.”

Mrs. Shulman would have said, “We don’t need you’se guys to tell us how to organize ourselves.”

That certainly would have been the opinion of Antonio who owned the one-man barbershop at the corner and Otto who had half the market for the candy trade for Carthage School #8. “Are you telling me how to run my business?” each of them would have asked. The Schmidts’ brindled mutt would have made his way off their porch across the street. “Demon,” as he was called, a sneaky cur around adult strangers, especially those in suits, would have walked stiff-legged across the street while Barry made his speech on social justice and equitable distribution of goods, until he was interrupted by the sting of canine fangs in his calf.

Barry would have been sent running, which would be a good thing for him because right about that time Mr. Tischenko would be coming downstairs with the rifle.

Mary Grabar

Mary Grabar earned her Ph.D. in English from the University of Georgia and teaches in Atlanta. She is organizing the Resistance to the Re-Education of America at Her writing can be found at