WASHINGTON – More than 2,000 community organizers, including hundreds from Maryland, gathered at the Washington Hilton Thursday to show their continuing support for one of their own — President-elect Barack Obama.
Maryland Reps. Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, John Sarbanes, D-Towson, and Donna Edwards, D-Fort Washington, joined two members of Obama’s transition team and advocacy group leaders to discuss the worsening economic crisis and what grassroots organizations can do to help launch Obama’s plan for change.
“The times call not for the small and timid changes but the big and bold changes to turn our country around,” said Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, an organization devoted to mobilizing grassroots organizations that co-hosted the forum with the Gamaliel Foundation, a network of groups to which Obama belonged when he was a community organizer.
Van Hollen spoke to the organizers, who had spent the morning lobbying Congress, about the state of the country, which he said was plagued by the economic crisis and broken health care and immigration systems.
“If we’re going to solve these problems, we need everyone who went out to vote for change on Election Day to keep working for change day after day after day,” he said.
The community organizers are the people Van Hollen said he entrusts to take on such a difficult task.
“Go out and every day make sure we continue to be engaged in this process as so many of you are, as our friends from Maryland are,” he said.
Sarbanes and Edwards also talked to the organizers about their importance in helping with the country’s transition.
“Keep doing exactly what you did that brought you to Washington today, that elected a community organizer on Nov. 4 as president of the United States because you’re obviously doing something right,” Sarbanes said, stressing that their work is just as important as Obama’s work.
Transition leader Melody Barns, director of Obama’s Domestic Policy Council, outlined the incoming administration’s priorities.
“We know we have an economic crisis staring us in the face right now, and we have to do something about that,” she said. “And we are preparing, as President-elect Obama has said, a stimulus package to shock the economy back into being.”
When the package is created, she said they will not forget about their promises to reform health care, education and immigration.
Many of the organizers present for the forum were from groups advocating for immigrant rights, so the panelists talked a lot about comprehensive immigration reform as a benefit to the country and a boon to the economy.
“To do the right thing and have comprehensive immigration reform policy as was said is going to do the right thing for all of our communities, and it’s going to get us away from this scapegoating, which is so divisive,” Sarbanes said.
The Rev. Kevin Turman, chair of the Gamaliel Foundation Council of Presidents, echoed Sarbanes’ point about doing what will benefit the larger community.
“Investing in people, it means more than just seeing them as laborers,” he said.
Inspired and excited to get back to work, the crowd of organizers gave a thunderous applause for the last speaker. Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to Obama and co-chair of his transition team, told the crowd that Obama was looking forward to their help in uniting the country.
“Our challenges are daunting,” she said, “but our opportunities are endless.”