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A Life in Service

Barack Obama's Journey from Organizer to Senator

The day before Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) was sworn into office, a reporter asked him, “What’s your place in history?”

Obama’s response to this question was to laugh out loud.

“I thought he was kidding,” Obama said during his Commencement address at Knox College on June 4, 2005. “At that point, I wasn’t even sure the other Senators would save me a place at the cool lunch table.”

It’s not surprising that he found the question humorous. At the time of the reporter’s question, Obama had not even taken his oath as the junior senator from Illinois. But the reporter raised an important point.

Although he was elected to the U.S. Senate with the largest victory margin in Illinois history and is only the fourth African American to serve in the Senate, Barack Obama’s contribution to American history is not yet written in the history books. Yet his numerous contributions to the communities and individuals that he has served throughout his career are what make him a rising political figure around the country.

Obama has dedicated his professional life to public service as a community organizer, civil rights attorney, law school professor and leader in the Illinois Senate.

Over the course of his career, he has helped displaced workers on the South Side of Chicago, registered over 100,000 voters in Illinois Project Vote! in 1992, and fought for working families and early childhood education as a state senator.

As a United States Senator, Obama is currently focused on promoting economic growth and bringing jobs to Illinois, as well as making college more affordable for all Americans.

Knox Magazine had the opportunity to sit down with Senator Obama at Commencement and discuss the importance of community service on college campuses and his own journey from community organizer to United States Senator.

Knox Magazine: Community service and service learning are becoming more and more important to the education of Americans, from elementary school through college. Why do you think service has come to the forefront of education?
Senator Obama: I think there’s a real hunger on the part of young people to be involved with the larger questions of their society. It’s hard for students to find direct avenues to get involved. So to the extent that institutions like colleges and universities can give young people avenues to explore those inclinations and do so in a structured way at a time when they have less pressure than they will have later in life-I think it’s extraordinarily valuable.

KM: In your Commencement address, you said that there is no community service requirement in the real world. Do you think offering service learning to students while they are in school will help establish a life-long commitment to service?
Senator: Yes, I do. What young people discover when they have the opportunity to get involved in community issues and projects is … the ability to impact the world. It creates some good habits that translate into their participation in their congregation or in a not-for-profit organization. If they are lawyers, they are more likely to be involved in pro bono work. If they are doctors, they are more likely to provide free service. It makes real for them the power they have to make peoples lives better.

KM: Your own interest in community service began in college, correct?
Senator: Yes, although we didn’t have community service requirements. I had to sort of scramble to figure out how to get involved. The anti-Apartheid movement was very active on college campuses in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and my first bit of activism was attempts to get [Occidental] college to divest from South Africa. That carried over into interest in participating in community projects around campus. As a consequence of that, I decided professionally that I wanted to work as a community organizer. But one of the things that was tough, and it remains true for a lot of young people, is that it’s harder to find a job in the nonprofit sector than it is in the for-profit sector. And to the extent that colleges and universities can give young people ideas about career paths that involve service or give them internships and other experiences that help them network in the service sector … that, I think, can be a real boost. Something that I wish I had when I was in school.

KM: You worked as a community organizer in Chicago before entering law school. Why did you decide to make the transition to law school?
Senator: After about three-and-a-half years of organizing, what I became aware of was that -- although it was the best education I ever got and we had some significant impact on some local issues -- it was very hard for me to work locally and impact some broader structural problems in the economy.
It was similar to what is happening here in Galesburg-plants were closing; people were thrown out of work; and the decisions were being made in New York or Washington or Dallas. I thought that law school would be a way for me to learn more about how these decisions were being made and how the system operated so that I could potentially have a broader impact.

KM: Describe your transition from working as a lawyer into pursuing politics.
Senator: I practiced as a civil rights lawyer for four years, as well as teaching at the University of Chicago, and I continued my involvement in public service. In fact, when I graduated, I put off working as a lawyer for a year to run a major voter registration project in Chicago. So, actually, my commitment to public service in different manifestations has remained pretty consistent for most of my adult life.

KM: Now that you are working full-time in politics, what are the main differences and/or similarities between public service on the community level and public service on the political level?
Senator: We have staffs and budgets and things on the federal level. I have an office that isn’t in some church basement somewhere, so there’s certain perks that come with the office that just help you do your job. But, hopefully, my job as an elected official is not just to be a broker of power among special groups or corporations. Maybe some people view politics that way. I still consider politics as an organizing tool. How can I create an atmosphere in which people feel ownership for their government and consider me to be a partner in the project of self-governance? And, in that sense, that’s similar to my philosophy as an organizer.