In the summer of 1971, I went to Chicago to train as an organizer at the Industrial Areas Foundation (I.A.F.), which was founded in 1940 by the late Saul Alinsky, a colorful personality who is widely regarded as the father of community organizing.
Of the many things he talked about during that training, he made two points that have stayed with me over the course of my 45-year career spent organizing in Baltimore and across the country.
The first point was his adamant stance against ideology, which he believed stood in the way of democracy. Ideology, he told us, blocked people from operating from their own ideas and interests. Ideology pre-supposes a world view and dismisses relationship building, which requires the give and take that is so necessary to develop democratic practices. In fact, much of our required reading came from the Federalist Papers, Thomas Paine and the biography of Samuel Adams.
The second point he emphasized was that he believed that most people, given honest information and a free environment, would make the right decisions most of the time. The belief in people's capacity to make the right decisions was essential, he said, to being a successful organizer. He told us that if any of us did not believe this, we should leave the training immediately.
The past few elections, and the time I spent in the U.K. working for the Labour Party from 2011 to 2013, have consistently reminded me of Alinsky's words.
I am appalled at the disdain that so many people running for high office and their top staff have for so many of the people they want to represent.
From candidate Barack Obama, who characterized some people in our country as clinging to their religion and guns; to Mitt Romney, who said that 47percent of Americans are takers; to John Podesta, who told a gathering of Democratic donors and supporters that John Kerry lost because white working class people do not understand their own self-interest; to Hillary Clinton, with her basket of deplorables; to Donald Trump, who has no regard for anyone but himself; and to the many Labour Party leaders I met who had a deep disdain for the white working class of their nation — they all show a contempt for large sections of their country's population.
I have organized in numerous states, counties, cities and rural areas. This rich experience has meant that I have worked with people from very different backgrounds and experiences. In each place I worked, any stereotypes I brought with me were quickly shattered as I came to know people.
I learned that Alinsky was right: Most people have the capacity and desire to do what is best for themselves and for others. Most people, given the opportunity to relate to and to work with people who are different from them, enjoy these experiences and grow through them.
There are many pressing problems that face our country domestically and internationally today; however, we will make no progress on any major issue until — and unless — the people who aspire to be president learn to believe in the people of our country. After all, they're asking us to believe in them; the least they can do is return the favor.
Arnold Graf is the former co-director of the Industrial Areas Foundation. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.