What Obama learned from Cesar Chavez

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When Barack Obama took to praising the late Cesar Chavez during the presidential campaign, I saw it as nothing more than a cheesy ploy to win Latino votes. In fact, it looked like the laziest kind of ethnic pandering – throw out the name of a beloved figure and hope it buys some instant credibility.

To court the Irish, mention John F. Kennedy. To woo African-Americans, bring up Martin Luther King Jr. And to score points with Latinos, try Chavez, the former leader of the United Farm Workers union.

It’s not that simple. Chavez’s memory might mean something to Mexican-American baby boomers who credit him with bringing dignity to the agricultural fields in which their parents toiled. But it doesn’t have the same punch with urbanites, immigrants or Latinos whose ancestry can be traced to parts of Latin America other than Mexico.

On second thought, however, I think I may have been unfair to Obama. Maybe the president-elect really does admire Chavez and the imprint he left on the second half of the 20th century, and maybe some of that admiration comes from Obama appreciating what Chavez accomplished in organizing the farm workers.


For author and activist Randy Shaw, the editor of an online newspaper and the director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic in San Francisco, this was simply one community organizer paying respect to another.

Shaw’s new book, “Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century,” is part history and part current events. History because Shaw looks back on the UFW’s impressive knack for grass-roots organizing, and how some of the union’s former disciples went on to lead movements where they helped organize janitors, hotel workers and others. And current events because, according to Shaw, some of those baby boomer activists recently put their organizational skills to work in service of a new cause: the Obama campaign.

Shaw said they include people such as Marshall Ganz, a former UFW foot soldier who now teaches community organizing at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Ganz, who also worked on the Howard Dean campaign in 2004, joined Obama to help organize young volunteers. Then there is Eliseo Medina, a former UFW field organizer who is now executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union. Medina is an Obama adviser.


“It’s a small universe,” Shaw said. “I think Obama is very good at finding talented people.”
That part of the story has been woefully underreported. Political observers and others marveled at how near perfect the Obama campaign was and how few mistakes it made. But they never got around to asking how the enterprise came together.

“Everyone is so impressed with the efficiency and discipline of the Obama campaign,” Shaw told me recently. “But if you look at the description in my book of how the farm workers ran campaigns in 1960 and 1972 in the Latino community, word for word, that’s what it was. The media wasn’t interested in where this whole Obama organizing model came from. But it was from the farm workers’ movement.”


And what exactly is that model? Shaw described it as “forming a deeper connection” than you might get from holding up placards, handing out leaflets or manning a phone bank.
“It doesn’t mean you call someone up, ask them if they’re voting for Obama, and say, OK, goodbye,” Shaw said. “It’s what the farm workers did. You knock on the door. You start having a substantive conversation, and then try to recruit that person to be an organizer. Then you go to the next house.”

Before the Internet came along, that was how you built a movement.
Shaw believes that Obama’s victory “might have really elevated the status of community organizers.”


He said the strength of community organizing lies in showing average citizens how to use the tools they have to fix whatever problems they’re facing.

“There is power among low-income people, but they need to know how to use it and organize collectively,” he said. “The organizer helps them get from Point A to Point B.” If Barack Obama’s Point A was community organizing on the South Side of Chicago, then his Point B is the White House.

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