Obama stood out, even during brief 1985 NYPIRG job

November 10, 2008

When 23-year-old Barack Obama, then a recent Columbia University graduate, walked into the office of the New York Public Interest Research Group in 1985 after answering an ad for a job, his supervisor had a warning for him.

“I told him he would make less than $10,000 a year,” said Eileen Hershenov, who was the downstate campus coordinator for NYPIRG. “He laughed and told me that was a step up for him.”

As President-elect Obama prepares to enter the White House, relatively little is known about his five years in New York in the early ’80s. It was a period of transition for Obama, a time of soul-searching and uncertainty. It was also when he first worked full-time as a community organizer, a role that would define his young life and help shape his political outlook.

As a project coordinator for NYPIRG on the City College of New York campus in Harlem for three months in 1985, Obama spent hours with students in the trailer that served as the group’s office just below 140th Street and Convent Avenue, giving lessons on how to organize rallies and letter-writing campaigns, how to speak to legislators and lobby for change in public policy.

Former colleagues recall a “fabulously intelligent” and confident young man who was intensely interested in the idea of creating political change from the ground up, an idea that would resurface years later in his meteoric political rise.

He stood apart from some of the more radical students on campus, they said, and believed strongly in working within the system.

“He had a seriousness of purpose,” recalled Diana Mitsu Klos, then a school organizer working out of the CCNY office. “His tenure was brief, but anyone who met him received a strong and lasting impression.”

Obama worked that spring semester, from February through late May, on several NYPIRG projects, including the Straphangers Campaign.

Alison Kelley, who was a sophomore at CCNY and later became NYPIRG’s chairwoman, remembers working with Obama to improve the City College subway station at 137th Street and Broadway, which was dirty and had poor lighting. She said he was among the early leaders in the successful push to get CUNY to divest itself of holdings in apartheid South Africa. He also led voter registration drives and campaigns to keep tuition down at CUNY.

“We had other organizers who were competent people, but he really stood out,” Kelley said. “Everyone knew that he was going to do something remarkable.”

Shortly after working for NYPIRG, Obama moved to Chicago.

When he told Hershenov he was leaving, she literally got down on her knees and begged him to stay, she said.

“I wanted him to stay because he could appeal to so many different people,” Hershenov said. “People who were very interested in identity politics, people who were apolitical and people on the left and the right. He appealed to students across a political spectrum.”

Copyright © 2009, Newsday Inc.