I drove home from Reading PA on Wednesday after spending over a month as a “fellow” in the Obama campaign. “Fellow” is a made up title for people who come to a battleground state to volunteer full-time for the campaign. It’s kind of like being an intern, but with more exploitation.
My main assignment was to canvass. I was a foot soldier in the infantry. Whatever I might have done or been before was unimportant and no one was interested. More relevant were my Spanish language skills as Reading is majority Latino. But even if I couldn’t decir ni una palabra, they would have had me knocking on doors. The fact that I was willing to go out canvassing, all day every day, in any neighborhood, and engage in many conversations, made me useful. While there might have been more I could have done, by the time I arrived all the field organizers were interested in were numbers and reaching the goal of “knocking on every door in Reading — twice.” I did my part in reaching that milestone and also managed in the conversations I had at those doors to make sure the unregistered got registered, and everyone knew his or her polling place, how to get there and when to vote. I may have helped make up a few minds, and encouraged a couple of folks to join us in getting out the vote.
Four weeks of pounding the broken pavement and going up and down rickety front steps left me exhausted. Reading, by the way, isn’t wasting any money on street-lighting either. I was lucky not to have twisted an ankle or worse. When it was all over, despite the fantastic election results, I felt a huge sense of emptiness, and I felt used.
Having worked for organizations that relied on volunteers, I knew something about their care and feeding — both emotional and actual, and had felt frustrated at times. I left grateful to have played a small part in a big victory, but I also felt less important than a speck of dust.
Everybody knows that the ground game was brilliantly played. The campaign staff and volunteers worked incredibly hard. While I generally worked 10-12 hours a day, unlike the field organizers (campaign staff), I managed to come home a couple of times. As a volunteer, I could take a day off. The not-very-well-paid staff never got that luxury, and as far I can see never stopped working. Some of them had been doing what they were doing a long time. Others had only started a few weeks before I did. They were laser focused on reaching daily voter contact goals. I respected how important that work was, but there were times I wanted to bust into the Regional Field Director’s office and explain to him that “chain of command” didn’t mean he shouldn’t be walking the floor every so often and patting volunteers as well as his supervisees on the back. They wouldn’t work any less hard if he did. He wouldn’t be viewed as inefficient if he maybe checked in with the fellow from Hoboken after Superstorm Sandy and asked her how things were at home. He was, after all, our local leader. And while “caring” might not be part of campaign strategy, it is part of leadership.
For that matter, when we left the office Sunday night before the storm, we left with call lists because the office would be closed the next day. There was no acknowledgement that maybe people with no electricity would not want to waste their cell batteries talking to campaign workers. We started canvassing again on Tuesday afternoon. While Sandy hadn’t hit Reading very hard, there were power outages and this meant no heat as well as no light for some. Many folks had family in New Jersey whom they still hadn’t heard from. There were a couple of objections that maybe canvassing might be counter-productive and that saying we are checking on our supporters was rather empty if we couldn’t get their lights back on.
The campaign was famously “metric-driven” to the point where it sometimes felt like voters were only numbers and volunteers simply bodies in motion. While out-of-state volunteers and staff stayed with generous host families, sometimes for several months, no one from the campaign ever called the host families to check in and make sure the guests weren’t stealing the china. I doubt anyone other than their guests ever gave them a thank you.
Nor do I think the neighborhood folks who opened up their homes for phone banking or as staging areas during the Get-Out-The-Vote drive were thanked in any official way. Imagine having strangers in your home day after day, all day, and we’re not talking about huge homes either. The staging area I worked out of belonged to an older woman in need of knee surgery whose husband was recovering from a stroke. And this was the second time she’d done it. A letter from the President might be nice — even if he does use an autopen.
Why is any of this important? Didn’t we all have the satisfaction of seeing Obama get re-elected? Sure we did. And I got that thanked every day by ordinary people in Reading. But the point is, for those of us not doing this to pad our resumes or build a career — acknowledgement, respect and validation was something we needed, something that would have made us do even better.
I saw a neighborhood volunteer who was in the office every day almost walk away in frustration. A newly arrived fellow who had been promoted to Deputy Field Organizer (unpaid) told her to make some calls. The volunteer was upset by the call list. She was supposed to recruit volunteers from a list that included people we hadn’t talked to before. Some were even Republicans. This was a woman who knew her community well and had worked the polls for years. She knew more about local election laws than anyone working in that office, and she was great at talking to people — in person as well as on the phone. After trying to use the list, she gave up. She started to shout, “I’m wasting my time. I’m done. I’m not coming back.”
I took her out and we went to lunch. I let her vent. I didn’t defend anyone’s behavior. I just listened — a professionally acquired skill, which no one seemed to know I had. I reminded her how important she was to the campaign. It was rewarding to me to see her and that same Deputy Field Organizer weeks later on election night. They had bonded and gotten past that moment.
A couple of days after I arrived, I went to a training offered by the Regional Director. The training module he was using talked about stories and how important personal narratives were in the campaign. He demonstrated this by telling us his.
Then he asked us to think about our own personal narrative — why re-electing Obama was important to us based on our own experiences. Narrative is something I know a little bit about. But he skipped the part in the module where we would actually share our own stories and learn to listen to others. He didn’t think that was important.
In retrospect, I wish I had tried to talk to him afterward and given him feedback on the need for more process, less talk. I could have offered to put together a brief narrative training based on the module, as a team builder for volunteers and staff, but I’m reasonably certain I would have been rebuffed. It wasn’t in the game plan. I was there to serve in the infantry.
Election night, no one had thought to get a projector for the office so that staff and volunteers could watch the returns together. Instead we spontaneously gathered around a laptops by the front desk. A few of us were watching when one of the field organizers grabbed the laptop, presumably to report results (he was talking through his bluetooth) to someone else from the campaign. He seemed oblivious to the people in front of him who were watching, including a woman in a wheelchair. No one seemed mad at him. It was his moment too. But what was the message?
The victory party was held at a bar a few miles from the office. There were familiar faces from our office as well as from an unsuccessful local congressional campaign. But we were all on our own for food and drink. There were lots of big screen televisions, but no speeches from anyone in the campaign office. Nor was any campaign official there to thank the volunteers and lower level staff. The Regional Director was apparently elsewhere at some other party for the big shots. Maybe one that had an open bar and free chips.
Just a little bit of closure would have been nice. A handshake from someone in charge. A very short speech, you know a narrative, from the Regional Director or maybe even the State Director even via Skype, thanking all of us for our time. Yes, I did get hugs from some of the other grunts including local people who were there before the campaign moved in and will be there long after, but how can they see the campaign and the people who ran it, as appreciative or respectful of their efforts if they don’t get thanked?
I get that a campaign is not a service organization like the ones I worked for that treated volunteers like gold. I get this wasn’t a community organizing project to help people learn self-advocacy so they could run their own tenant council or voice concerns to their children’s teachers. I get that this wasn’t about the personal growth and empowerment of volunteers, but it could have been and should have been about something bigger than just winning one election.
My cousin, the political professional, tells me this is how it is with campaigns. Fair enough. But the ground game as it now has to be played requires more. It requires people power, and empowering people is the fuel needed to run it. It worked this time because of a popular President, who many viewed as being unfairly under attack by an extremist right wing. It worked because voter suppression efforts in states like Pennsylvania backfired and fired people up. It worked because as Mike Huckabee put it, Romney looks like the guy who fires people. But it may not work four years from now when people are complacent. It may not work four years from now if it doesn’t work to change Congress in two years — a Herculean task thanks to gerrymandering.
When I got to Pennsylvania, I discovered the call scripts and walk scripts referred not to “Obama for America” but to “Organizing for America.” I was told it meant, “We will be here after the election and help people run for local office and be empowered in the political process.” My understanding is this is what was happening in Ohio, and maybe some of the other battleground states. I saw no evidence of this in Reading.
I heard no discussions about OFA or its future. Nor do I have any idea whether the office is still open or staffed. Maybe it’s another of the many things they didn’t think the infantry needed to know about. Maybe it got discussed in a meeting on Wednesday, which I missed trying to get home before the Nor’easter.
Here’s what it says about OFA in Wikipedia:
“Organizing for America is a community organizing project of the Democratic National Committee. Founded after the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama, the group seeks to mobilize supporters in favor of Obama’s legislative priorities.”
Now, that’s an organization I could support. The reason why so many brilliant, earnest young people want to work for the President in the first place is because they were inspired by his community organizing experiences as recounted in Dreams from My Father. Obama has stated his desire to be a transformational leader. He is achieving that goal in his efforts to enfranchise the actual silent majority of Americans — the have-nots, historically alienated from the political process.
Community organizing has been used to empower people to work on particular issues within their communities. Harnessing its power and using it in electoral politics to promote a progressive political platform, that’s something else. That’s not how politics is usually done, but it’s something a movement inspired by Barrack Obama can do. That work should have started back in 2009 when it was supposed to. And if it has started in Ohio or other places where OFA is stronger, than it should have been more well known. They should have sent that memo out along with all the chances to win dinner with Barack and George.
Many people have lamented the lack of a progressive equivalent to the Tea Party. While the Tea Party is a faux-grassroots organization propped up with Koch brother dollars, there is an opportunity to apply campaign discipline and community organizing skill to create a real movement, aligned with the Democratic Party. Occupy is a mess that doesn’t speak to the mainstream, and doesn’t seem to want much to do with electoral politics or the President. Move-on doesn’t have a clear “off line” presence.
OFA already has staff and tens of thousands of volunteers. They have offices. They have an infrastructure. Actually fulfilling their mission is not impossible, but even if the DNC decides to give them more financial support, they will not be successful if they continue to run things in ground-game election mode. They are going to have to take off their campaign field organizing caps and start thinking like community organizers. Here’s how they might start:
- Keep the Regional Directors on as long as they understand it’s a different job, or hire people with more community organizing experience, but either way make sure it’s understood that the mission isn’t winning one election, but improving participation in all of them, for years to come, and the strategy is different. Have the organizer identify and begin to work directly with neighborhood leaders. Hint: It’s all those people who live in Reading and showed up almost every day of the campaign and/or allowed their homes to be used. The ones they should have made more efforts to cultivate during the campaign.
- Set up some kind of local board or advisory board to have an active role in running local operations. Yes, I know that’s a huge shift from how a campaign is run, but your mantra has to be: This is about building a grassroots movement.
- Make sure your neighborhood leaders/core volunteers get some real training. There should also be feedback and evaluation of trainings by trainees, as is done in professional organizations. Hint: The hired organizer does not have to be responsible for all of the training, but can use experienced volunteers to help, and even bring in non-local volunteers with experience. The national organization can assist with modules and “train the trainer” sessions.
- Make sure that the organizers also get the training and support they need. This includes a lot of help understanding and implementing the best practices for working with and managing volunteers. It’s more than simply honoring the hosts at a luncheon, having a “Volunteer of the Month” bulletin board, and generally showing a caring attitude — although all of that would be a start. It’s a vision of what people can do. It means understanding that volunteers are giving a service and have to get something in return. How do you keep them around when it’s not about re-electing the President, but is instead the grind of an endless campaign? If field organizers and/or directors will be staffing OFA post-campaign, then they need training in how to inspire and motivate people. What I saw in Reading was about getting the numbers, rather than organizing the volunteers. It was about relying on the inspirational figurehead of Barack Obama, and not actually modelling leadership. OFA not only requires community organizing skills, but because this is long-term movement, requires specific skills that lead to volunteer retention. OFA needs to be a place so attractive to work that people will be willing to do it for free. It has to be a community within the community. Hint: Look to some of your host families core local volunteers, and out-of-staters as they may include people with professional experience working with volunteers or as community organizers who may be willing to mentor less experienced OFA staff on the “soft” skills.
- Have volunteers/neighborhood leaders work on strategies (including canvassing) to bring people in to town hall style meetings with local leadership including electeds, board members etc to determine what local issues need to be worked on, while also working with OFA to set national goals. Hint: As a ground-worker, I saw the huge need for voter education. Many people do not understand the registration process and only vote in Presidential elections. There was not enough time during the campaign to work with folks on the importance of local elections as a way to have the President’s back and help support his agenda. Voter registration drives also have to be ongoing.
- Have all staff and core volunteers read or reread and discuss Dreams from My Father, highlighting and studying the parts about community organizing. Hint: Themes for discussion: How is forming a movement different from running a campaign? Also, despite what the Tea Party would have you believe, Saul Alinsky is not a dirty word.
- Make sure that active OFA chapters exist even in “safe” progressive states and communities, as members there can continue to increase voter turn out, help with voter education, raise awareness of issues, train more local people to take an active role in the political process, and assist when needed in other states and communities. The DNC and OFA need to work closely together.
- Switch from “movement” mode back to “politics” mode when it’s time to get out the vote.
The chattering classes are already saying that pulling off the ground game in 2016 will be harder than it was in 2012. They’re saying it was all about Obama. But from what I saw on the ground, the campaign ended when Ohio was called, and “we have his back” really was just a slogan. Some of the neighborhood leaders were around four years ago and continued to be active in their communities. Others were dormant between Presidential campaigns. Tens of thousands of people were registered in Reading alone. Hundreds were energized and helped out. It’s time to build a movement that will outlast this election cycle, one that will support the democratic agenda by empowering people to lead in their communities — including by running for local office, one that will spearhead voter education, making voting part of the culture and holding elected leaders accountable. This is the best way to have the President’s back over the next four years and to ensure that in 2016 we will continue to move forward.