Stanford University

When Ordinary People Get Involved

A return to community work may lie on the horizon for Obama—and should be a goal for us all.

Community Organizer, Barack Obama


As President Obama prepares for life beyond the Oval Office, many wonder what he will do next. Will he leverage his fame to become a “super organizer” in Chicago? Teach constitutional law again and hold out for a Supreme Court Justiceship in the post-Trump era? Write another book? It is a moment that is pregnant with possibilities. It is also a moment that is full of tension: How to balance personal needs with the pull of continued public engagement and service? On the one hand, one can imagine that President Obama might feel the need to renew commitments to family and friends, focus more on his personal health (more basketball?), or even just have some time for himself on a regular basis.

As outgoing president Obama will face, to a profound degree, what I call the American’s Dilemma.

On the other hand, he has a unique opportunity to make a difference in communities across the globe His potential to become a change agent is substantial, and undoubtedly, Obama will receive countless invitations to do so—to serve on boards, help raise money, and act as spokesperson, pressures that will be heavy and relentless.

As outgoing president he will face, to a profound degree, what I call the American’s Dilemma. As Americans, we are instilled with competing and often incompatible pressures. We are told to “make a difference” or, as Obama said in his farewell speech in Chicago last week, to “show up.” Americans help each other. We are also a nation of do-it-yourself individuals. We believe we are responsible for our own success. How to reconcile these different and competing pressures can leave us frustrated and stuck, unsure how to move ahead. Yet such dilemmas can also become catalysts for action, pushing us to create and find different ways to satisfy our needs. Once we figure out what works, we build it up into something that endures.

So, what is Obama to do next? Probably take a well-deserved vacation; likely spend some time getting his presidential library off the ground; undoubtedly begin work on a presidential memoir. In short, he is liable to observe many of the typical rites of passage of former U.S. presidents. But Obama has also alluded to returning to his roots as a community organizer, saying that he would like to “go back to doing the kinds of work that [he] was doing before, just trying to find ways to help people.”

No longer facing the constant pressures to comply with and conform to the competing and often incommensurable demands of the presidency, Obama can now turn his attention back to what Jane Addams, one of America’s most accomplished activists and citizens, called the “thronged and common road.” The parallels between the lives of Obama and Addams—both Nobel Peace Prize Winners who got their start as community organizers in Chicago—are remarkable. Further, their community work offers insight into how to navigate the American Dilemma—a balance that I anticipate will continue to be a part of Obama’s legacy, even after the presidency, and an example from which I think we can all benefit. The vibrancy of our democracy is rooted, ultimately, in the strength of our communities. My study of Obama’s and Addams’ lives and storied careers has led me to the conviction that reconciling the tension between individualism and community orientation rests on three general principles.

Don’t get comfortable… Be a person of action. Be a boundary-crosser.

First, don’t get comfortable. As we go about our daily lives, it is easy to follow the same well-worn paths, or as Obama said in his recent farewell speech, “retreat into our own bubbles.” But if the stories of Addams and the young Obama show us anything, it is that shaking things up and crossing boundaries leads to interesting outcomes. Be a person of action. Be a boundary-crosser. An obvious way to go about doing this is to travel—even (maybe especially) if that travel takes place in your own backyard. Go to the “other” side of town, a place you are not familiar with, and look for common bonds of humanity. Seek out deeper connections; in the words of Zygmunt Bauman, be a “pilgrim” not a “tourist.”

This advice is not just about how we actually travel, whether in our own town or across the globe. It is about how we live, how we travel through life itself. Deeper attachments are more sustaining and offer the potential to give you something in return. And as you move through new situations, take a page from Addams and listen: Do not try to “tell it like it is” before hearing what people have to say. As we see the size of others’ burdens, we come to understand our own burden in a different way. But moving out of your comfort zone does not mean you have to be completely selfless. Neither Addams nor Obama stopped living their own lives. It is critical to leave space for yourself while helping others.

The Size of Others' Burdens

The Size of Others’ Burdens » asks how people can act in the face of competing pressures, and explores the stories of two famous Americans to develop present-day lessons for improving our communities.

Second, connect with your neighbors. Obama recently urged America’s citizens to “talk to real people” and also “lead by example” if they want to learn how to make a difference. This is the kind of work Addams was so successful at—getting grounded in one’s own community and cultivating the “habits of the heart” that are so effective in building the social fabric of democracy. But not just any connection will do—writing a check to a local charity, donating to Goodwill, or joining a bowling league (as sociologist Robert Putnam famously described) is not enough. That is, pure enthusiasm is not enough. If the goal is to do good in the world and help others, one needs to step outside and start connecting to people in the neighborhood. This kind of local, small-scale action creates connections to others, and through these connections the actor gets back as much as, if not more than, she gives. Learning what neighbors truly need will put one in a better position to do more—and to do it in a way that will make real change for the neighborhood. Then go out and get the funding, whether public or private.

Third, watch out for what Addams called “selfish reciprocity.” In the process of making neighborhood connections around helping in the community, it will likely become apparent that many of the problems facing neighbors are structural and require higher-level intervention. And that kind of work needs the support of those in power. This is where Addams, based on her own vast experience, tells us it is necessary to be careful, because often the world of business and politics is about cronyism and self-interest, rather than a concern for the community. The selfish reciprocity Addams warned us about is a matter of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” and as Obama knows well, nothing comes for free in business and politics. This is not an injunction to avoid electoral politics in the Trump-era or turn down a check from a well-heeled businesswoman for a good cause. The point, however, remains that without independence from elites, efforts at community-based helping can quickly become compromised. Pressures come to bear, and the ability to be creative and experimental is diminished.

The ideas above are not new. But they are worth our consideration and reflection. It is easy to feel overwhelmed with the problems of the world. They can leave a person feeling small and ineffective, confused about where to start and fatalistic about what an individual person can actually do. But the most promising place to experiment with ways of becoming a proactive social citizen is within our own neighborhoods, by reaching out and getting involved in our own communities. It was in this spirit that Obama began his career in public service, a path that would ultimately lead him to the Oval Office, but as he leaves that office is he still well-aware that, as he put it in his farewell speech, “change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it.”


Start reading The Size of Others’ Burdens »

Erik Schneiderhan (@E_Schneiderhan) teaches sociology at the University of Toronto and is the author of The Size of Others’ Burdens: Barack Obama, Jane Addams, and the Politics of Helping Others.

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