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

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.

In 2008, Public Allies issued a statement confirming that Obama had trained classes of theirs in community organizing, had spoken at Public Allies Chicago events, and had helped Senator Dick Durbin secure an appropriation from the Department of Justice. An excerpt:

Public Allies has received many media inquiries about our history with President-elect and Michelle Obama, and has been featured in many news stories about them. Following are some details and anecdotes about the Obamas’ history with Public Allies.

President-elect Obama was a member of the founding advisory board of Public Allies. Michelle was the founding Executive Director of Public Allies Chicago from Spring, 1993 until Fall, 1996, and served on our national board of directors from 1997 until 2001. President-elect Obama was no longer on the board of Public Allies when Michelle was hired. Before joining Public Allies, she was an attorney at the law firm of Sidley & Austin and Deputy Director of Community Development for the City of Chicago.

The Institute has a strategic alliance with Public Allies’ consulting group, The Leadership Practice, through which we provide training and consulting services on how to better identify and mobilize local community assets and participation to strengthen communities.


The MSM promptly dropped the ball regarding what it is that Public Allies promotes or whether it might shed some light on how the Obamas view the world and remark upon it.

In 1996, while Michele ran Public Allies, Barack won a state senate seat and the Welfare Reform Act ignited the progressives. Robert Putnam, a political science professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, convened a group of “the most interesting” pastors, politicians, pundits, artists, academics, and community organizers to meet every few months from 1997 to 2000. The Saguaro Seminar included an unknown Barack Obama, as well as George Stephanopoulos, E.J. Dionne Jr., Ralph Reed, John Dilulio, and Jim Wallis, the well-known progressive preacher who is now one of Obama’s “close spiritual advisers.” Also taking part was fellow Chicagoan Bliss Browne, a Public Allies teacher and the founder of Imagine Chicago.

Browne and Kretzmann now crisscross the globe together preaching the ABCD version of the world. Imagine Chicago has morphed into Imagine Nation. For a hefty fee, you can be trained by the ABCD crowd. They’ll leave you with questions to ponder such as these:

How are you pregnant right now, as an individual or as a part of a larger collective?

What deep dreams are you carrying? Who is holding you as you carry these dreams?

Let’s apply the ABCD version of the world to the failed Olympics bid:

The Need/Deficit Model: The trip was a waste of time and taxpayer money. The Obama administration is rife with Chicago cronyism. Failure now permeates the White House.

The ABCD Model: As much of a sacrifice as people say this is for me or Oprah or the president to come for these few days, so many of you in this room have been working for years to bring this bid home, and you have put together a phenomenal set of ideas that, no matter what the outcome is, we should be proud of as a city.


If you are having a difficult time understanding the Obamas, looking deeper into the activities and teachings of Public Allies will help.

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