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The Originators of Obama-speak: Public Allies and the ABCD Institute

Want to make sense of the first couple's oratory? Examine their involvement with these two groups.

by
Patti Villacorta

Bio

October 25, 2009 - 12:58 am
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Our president is known as the community organizer in the family, but little if any attention is paid to the first lady’s relationship to a group in Chicago called Public Allies.

At first glance it has a donor list that includes George Soros, the state of California, HUD, David Geffen, Fannie Mae, Sallie Mae, and the Woods Fund of Chicago. It appears to promote a New-Agey brand of community organizing that presents like a melodramatic Oprah taping. It is, however, considerably more complicated.

In 1993, Michele Obama left Mayor Richard Daley’s administration to become the founding executive director of Public Allies — an offshoot of the Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) Institute at Northwestern University — led by her old friends John McKnight and John “Jody” Kretzmann. McKnight and Kretzman had invented a way of leveraging assets by training community organizers to reframe negatives as positives and then to build congregation-centered coalitions.

The following tenets are central to their program:

– Knowledge is relational.

– There is no immaculate perception.

– Language is a moral choice.

– Affirmative stories can be utilized in order to stretch the collective imagination.

– Learning the ABCD “language” is mandatory before you are allowed to practice it.

So — imagine a local park. Two very different descriptions of that park will lead policy in different directions:

The Need/Deficit Model: The park is a magnet for vandalism. The toilet block is consistently covered with graffiti. Local young people gather at the park on a Friday night and leave rubbish everywhere they go.

The ABCD Model: The park is an important meeting place for local young people. They value the space available there to meet friends. Every afternoon and on the weekends, families with young children, people walking their dogs, and young people come to the park to picnic. The park is a central community asset for a range of groups and individuals.

Barack Obama is also affiliated with Public Allies. Not only did he serve as a founding advisory board member, but John McKnight worked as an organizer with Barack and wrote his Harvard Law School recommendation. Both Kretzman and McKnight have been described by people who know the president as having had a huge intellectual influence on Barack’s thinking.

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