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Obama's Mentor: Community Organizer Jerry Kellman Trained the Man Who Would Become President

“Outsiders can do two things:?They can try to be like everybody else; or they can identify with other outsiders. Part of what Barack learned was not to be ideological.” —Jerry Kellman
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Gerald Kellman’s office is in a nondescript ranch house on Chicago’s northwest side, adjacent to St. Mary of the Woods Catholic Church, which owns the property.

The décor is minimalist: Master’s degree diplomas in divinity and journalism, from Loyola and Northwestern universities, respectively, hang from his office’s white walls. They join a framed picture of Gandhi, a Last Supper rendering and a poster promoting “The Still Small Voice: Jesus Encounters God and His Destiny,” a 1999 sermon and discussion featuring the Rev. Leo T. Mahon, the church’s pastor emeritus and an inspiration to Kellman.

As the church’s adult formation director, the soft-spoken but headstrong Kellman uses the office to communicate with clergy, staff members and parishioners; leading spiritual retreats is one of his primary tasks. 

But since autumn — longer than that actually, but especially since autumn — the office has seen a spike in the number of visits and phone calls from people with no ties to the parish or community.

Those people, reporters mostly, came calling and looking for Kellman to inquire about his relationship with the world’s most powerful man: President Barack Obama.

Kellman, who goes by Jerry, said recently he was spending 25 hours per week doing interviews with media outlets from all over the world. That’s bound to happen to the person who brought Obama to Chicago 25 years ago and hired him as a community organizer — a profound and prominent period in the president’s life, which has been written about extensively.

The day after Christmas, Kellman was in his office fielding an interview with a reporter from Libération, a French daily newspaper, for a feature on people who influenced world leaders. Most reporters, however, just wanted him to shed some insight on his former protégé, whom he employed to help enact social justice in moribund communities on Chicago’s south side and its suburbs.

Touting the virtues of an old friend and a person he thoroughly believes in to the press wasn’t much of a burden, Kellman says.

“It was a privilege to help with this campaign,” says Kellman, who’s working on a return to community organizing after leaving several years ago for a career in the ministry. “I wanted him to win.”

Kellman was born in New York City in 1950 but was raised in New Rochelle, N.Y. The suburb’s status as the first northern city to desegregate its schools (based on a 1962 U.S. Supreme Court case) left an indelible impression on him.

After some dalliances with activism as a high school student — he counts a ban on Little Black Sambo dolls he helped initiate in local schools as one victory — Kellman graduated to the big leagues upon his enrollment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a progressive’s Mecca.

“I went to the University of Wisconsin to major in student protesting,” he says jokingly. 

In Madison, he rallied students and helped put a stop to mandatory ROTC orientations, among other accomplishments. His stay was brief — he eventually transferred to Reed College in Portland, Ore. — but the Wisconsin school’s proximity to Chicago provided a fateful opportunity to visit the Windy City. He stopped by in 1968 to experience the Democratic National Convention, but like many liberals who made the trip, Kellman left with a bad impression.

Despite telling himself that he’d never go back, Kellman arrived in Chicago again in 1970, this time to stay for the long haul. He began an education in community organizing at a school run by Saul Alinsky, the late Chicagoan considered by many as the modern practice’s father.

Alinsky was a radical, but his method of reaching the core of people’s needs and concerns through one-on-one interviews influenced many organizers, perhaps most notably Obama.

In 1988, Obama wrote an article for Illinois Issues, “Problems and promise in the inner city,” about his experiences as an organizer in and around Chicago. In it, he describes how nowhere was the promise of organizing more apparent than in the traditional black churches. The piece later became part of the book After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois.

The Rev. Don Headley, a priest at St. Mary’s who organized the poor in Panama for 13 years beginning in the late 1960s, has a funny story about Alinsky that speaks to the organizer’s philosophy.

Sometime after he was ordained in 1958, Headley attended a meeting with Alinsky arranged by the Rev. Jack Egan, the founder of urban Catholic activism who died in 2001.

As Headley recalls it, Alinsky spoke to a room full of young priests and asked how many of them wanted to become bishops.

“About three young idiots raised their hands,” Headley says. “Alinsky told them: ‘Well, leave the room. You guys are going to be so eager to get to the next step … you won’t do anything today.”

“It was a wonderful, wonderful moment,” Headley says.

Kellman drew a lot from Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation, including methods to analyze how power is obtained, and used this knowledge while taking on the mortgage banking industry on Chicago’s west side, in addition to other endeavors.

But after a few years, the ups and downs of organizing exhausted Kellman physically and mentally.

Kellman pursued other opportunities and eventually went back to school, obtaining his journalism master’s from Northwestern in 1980.

But the self-fulfillment and chance for empowerment that organizing provided was an itch that continued. 

“I decided to leave organizing and then I didn’t — I went back,” he says.

After 18 months of public policy postgraduate studies at the University of Chicago, Kellman returned to organizing in 1982, this time on behalf of Hispanic communities. He trained staff for the United Neighborhood Organization, a citywide, church-based effort — the Jewish-born Kellman converted to Catholicism in 1983 — to give voice to a growing but underrepresented minority group.

Joshua Hoyt, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, met Kellman in 1984 while both were working for UNO. Kellman, who was transitioning to a project on Chicago’s south side at the time, was a valuable resource, Hoyt says. 

“Kellman was the person first helping us to understand how you could do effective organizing in churches, and he came to it with the methodology of the IAF (Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation),” says Hoyt, who’s been an organizer in various capacities going on 33 years.

Kellman left UNO to begin work for the Calumet Community Religious Conference, which sought the assistance of black churches on Chicago’s south side to help bring about better opportunities for local residents. The region was once the largest steel-producing area in the world, but globalization was starting to change that. Through his work with the Developing Communities Project, the CCRC’s inner-city operation, Kellman fought the fallout affecting workers and their families as the factories and mills began to shutter.

As the project’s executive director, he thought it wise to bring in a charismatic African-American organizer to whom the ministers and residents could better relate.

Help-wanted ads were placed in newspapers across the country, including one in the New York Times. A 24-year-old Columbia University graduate saw it and applied.

His name was Barack Obama.

“I had all but given up on organizing when I received a call from Marty Kaufman,” Obama wrote in his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father. “He offered to start me off at $10,000 the first year, with a $2,000 travel allowance to buy a car; the salary would go up if things worked out.”

Marty Kaufman is a pseudonym for Jerry Kellman. Obama writes about him at length throughout the memoir’s 160-page section on his experience organizing in Chicago. Kellman has a signed copy. It reads “To Jerry, a friend and a mentor.”

Kellman, who’s part of that exclusive group that can authoritatively refer to the president of the United States of America by first name, is understandably proud of much of his and Obama’s accomplishments with the Developing Communities Project.

The list includes obtaining a $1 million commitment from the state for a job- training program on the far south side, as well as working to rid housing projects of asbestos.

In Dreams, Obama writes of how some residents of Altgeld Gardens distrusted Kellman, however, and felt he was arrogant. 

Obama’s portrayal isn’t always glowing, either; in one passage, Obama says Kellman made no particular attachments to people during his three years in the area. (Kellman takes no issue with any of the depictions.)

But at the same time, Obama believed Kellman was an effective and conscientious organizer. 

Obama pondered those qualities as he got to know the people he was helping organize more intimately, such as when he would counsel teenagers on college applications.

“It was during such times, when familiarity or weariness dissolved the lines between organizer and leader, that I began to understand what [Kellman] had meant when he insisted that I move toward the centers of people’s lives,” Obama wrote.

The Developing Communities Project had an office in the rectory of Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Roseland. The Rev. Bill Stenzel, a Holy Rosary priest at the time who’s now pastor at St. Bede the Venerable in Chicago, says he allowed Obama and Kellman to use the facility because he wanted to be a part of the organization, and his parish could offer the space but not the $5,000 donation for membership.

Stenzel says Kellman was an asset adept in gathering people who cared for the community beyond the boundaries of the membership role.

“In the Roseland community, he would have encountered clergy and church folks of many varying ecclesiologies and motivations, but he could engage a conversation that stretched everyone without pushing an agenda, and folks could discover interests in common and issues in common,” Stenzel wrote in an e-mail.

For his part, Obama connected well with all who worked with him, Stenzel adds.

Kellman said Obama was such a deft organizer because as an outsider himself, growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia, he could empathize with people.

“Outsiders can do two things: They can try to be like everybody else; or they can identify with other outsiders,” Kellman says. “Part of what Barack learned was not to be ideological.”

After three years, Obama left organizing and decided to enroll at Harvard Law School. Kellman says Obama discussed exploring elected office as a way to effect societal change because organizing often came up short in achieving that goal.

Kellman didn’t argue, thinking it was the right decision for Obama.

Working in Chicago, though, both were cynical about public officials.

“We didn’t believe that anyone black could be president or anything,” Kellman says.

Like Obama, Kellman decided he’d (again) leave organizing to pursue other channels to change people’s hearts and minds.

He was drawn to the ministry.

“I felt that if attitudes didn’t change, we wouldn’t be able to change larger policies,” he says.

In 1997, Kellman received his master’s degree in divinity from Loyola University-Chicago. He started working for churches, leading retreats and preaching about changing hearts to transform society.

Kellman is no proselytizer; some of his views aren't in total lockstep with strict Catholic doctrine.

The Rev. Headley at St. Mary’s, who believes the church is just an instrument, said Kellman is much more interested in getting people to have faith than religion.

“Jerry’s very perceptive, and he’s very good at what he does,” Headley says. “He sees what people need and tries to fill that. He’s interested in getting people to look toward the future rather than cling to the past.”

Sounds a lot like organizing.

Kellman likely won’t ever be able to sever his ties to the more traditional practice. Not when the man he hired and was a mentor to, whose wedding he attended, is now president of the most powerful country in the world.

Organizing is a central tenet of the Obama administration. Last month, the president established Organizing for America, a grassroots effort aimed to be an opportunity for millions of Americans to pitch in and help advance his agenda.

Kellman played no small role in promoting that idea. Through his interviews with the New York Times, Washington Post and Frontlinedocumentaries, or his televised campaign advertisement in Iowa or the speech he gave during the Democratic National Convention, Kellman was a living and breathing testament to one man’s power to organize and a reason to be optimistic about its future.

Repeated efforts to reach the Obama campaign team for comment regarding Kellman were unsuccessful. A person formerly affiliated with the campaign warned: “We rarely comment in stories like these.”

It’s pretty clear, though, that thanks to Obama, organizing is en vogue.

“In the last 30 years, community organizing has moved from something that was quite marginal and horribly paid to something that is a respected contribution to our democracy,” says Hoyt of the immigrant and refugee coalition. “It’s been quite effective in turning around a lot of devastated communities and training a lot of people who went on to become very important political leaders, not the least of which was Barack Obama.”

Kellman is contemplating a return, exploring a project with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless addressing homelessness policy and its roots in mental illness, addiction and the prison system.

He’s convinced community organizing will now be much more collaborative with the federal government but knows there’s still a lot of work left in motivating people to do things differently.

“Organizing is reorganizing,” Kellman says. 

Phil Davidson is a Champaign-based free-lance writer. 

Illinois Issues, March 2009

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