The SZ yesterday translated “community organizer” as “Sozialarbeiter”, i.e. a social worker. Sorry, but that’s wrong.
The mistake is common because, first of all, the term is hard to define even in English, and secondly, Germans don’t have a grassroots democracy or the vocabulary to go with it. Politics in Germany are mostly party-based and party-organized. Parties redefine their programs all the time by working at the grassroots level to help get the concepts right for their members, and to sell the concepts to their members.
But community organizing in the USA is not usually party-based. It essentially targets a group of people defined by their common neighborhood or membership, and asks: What are the issues that you are interested in, what are your ideas? The goal is then to form an interest group. There can be elements of social work, when community organizers coordinate programs run by different agencies at the local level, to make sure the programs are doing what they should. Or they facilitate self-help groups by teaching local leaders how to solve community problems. But community organizing can, of course, be a part of a political campaign, as in the Obama campaign for the presidency, where the lines between party work, media work and community organization have become so blurred that it’s really hard to define what’s going on.
And so: Who are the community organizers? Is it a job with a salary? Who pays it? Or is it volunteer work? The answer is: There are paid jobs, though they do not pay well, and you can even study how to be a community organizer at college. Still, Sarah Palin’s comment about Barack Obama’s work as a community organizer hit home. His responsibility there was certainly not as great as that of a mayor. But then, those were three years of work with a church that he did as a young man, between college and law school, before he went on to work in the state legislature. It reflected his social commitment, it was not a career move. That’s why Sarah Palin’s remark is backfiring. This is how Obama explains his community work:
I’m not quite sure I agree with Wikipedia listing Jesus Christ as a community organizer but the list of community organizers there is a good read.
A social worker, by contrast, has the job of improving the social conditions for a target group and getting them to conform to a code of behavior according to an agenda made by a welfare institution. Their behavior determines whether they will continue to receive the financial support of that institution. Now, that is a whole different ballgame.
Churches all around the world do important social work that does not necessarily involve paying out welfare. But do they organize people to become politically active? Not primarily, at least. But their goals differ and are related to that specific church community. Obama was working for a church with a political agenda. So, overall, the job description is very difficult to pin down.