Organizing for our future

/ 8 October 2008

Win or lose, this campaign has taught a new generation how to organize.

Inside the Obama campaign, almost without anyone noticing, an insurgent generation of organizers has built the Progressive movement a brand new and potentially durable people’s organization, in a dozen states, rooted at the neighborhood level.

Read the rest of Zack Exley’s article about how this has come to be and how it is working over at the Huffington Post. Bonus: most of the article interviews neighborhood leaders in Ohio.

The field director Jackie Bray was driving around the state doing spot checks on the quality of local team structures when I was in Ohio. So I asked her to describe the field model in an email. I’m struck by two things about her response: first, how detailed and self-analytical it is; second, that it represents exactly the model I saw actually being practiced in the field—because I’m sorry to say it, but I’m just used to anyone with the title “director” being hopelessly out of touch with the reality of the ground. (Including myself in more than a couple past jobs!)

Jackie wrote: “When we identify a volunteer or a potential volunteer we always hold a one on one meeting. Movements aren’t built on individual people—they are built on relationships. Then we ask our volunteers to make deeper commitments. We coach new volunteers and facilitate the process for folks who are old hat at this stuff through an organizing activity. Usually the organizing activity is hosting a house meeting but it can be hosting a community meeting or a faith forum or recruiting seven plus new volunteers to take the first step and come to our office. Once someone has succeeded at an organizing activity we ask them to try their hand at leading a voter contact activity. Mostly we are interested in how well they train fellow volunteers to make phone calls or knock on doors. Training is a huge part of quality control and we need our leaders to be good trainers. If a potential leader is a successful trainer then we meet with them again to ask them to take that next step and become a Team Coordinator or Team Leader. If at any moment in this process a volunteer isn’t successful our organizers are trained to spend time coaching them through getting better. We are an inclusive team here and our goal is always to make people better.”

All the organizers and team leaders I met were similarly reflective and highly aware that they were enacting a special model of electoral organizing. They actually sound like they’re in a continuous state of shock at their own results and the power being unleashed by teams. A chill went down my spine one night—the good kind—when I was listening in on a nightly report-in conference call with 20 FOs at the Hamilton, Ohio, office. It was about 10:00 PM, and a new organizer was reporting in her daily voter contact numbers to Jackie.

Jackie asked her why that week they had been so much higher than the previous week. The young woman on the other end of the line—who I imagined calling from a car pulled over on the side of some far flung rural route—spoke with genuine amazement when she said, “It’s the teams! It’s these awesome team leaders! It’s working! It’s actually working!”


Then, at the end of our meeting, my neighborhood team leader, Jennifer Robinson, totally unprompted, told me: “I’m a different person than I was six weeks ago.” I asked her to elaborate later. She said, “Now, I’m really asking: how can I be most effective in my community? I’ve realized that these things I’ve been doing as a volunteer organizer—well, I’m really good at them, I have a passion for this. I want to continue to find ways to actively make this place, my community, a better place. There’s so much more than a regular job in this—and once you’ve had this, it’s hard to go back to a regular job. I’m asking now: Can I look for permanent work as an organizer in service of my community? And that’s a question I had not asked myself before the campaign. It never occurred to me that I could even ask that question.”

OK, now my eyes are wet.

Be the first to comment