Thursday, June 19, 2008

Obama for Organizer-in-Chief

From February 4th, 2008


Since I have came onto the little place we call the "netroots" I have written 63 blog posts. Many of them have been in favor of Barack Obama's candidacy for president. So I thought it would be fitting the day before most of the nation votes, to write a sort of closing case for Obama. I have thought about many different ways I could explain my support. I could offer a wrap up of all the diaries I have written for him, I could make a new case, I could attack the other canidate. There were lots of ways I was thinking of doing this. But then this morning I read a article that pretty much summed up why I believe Obama is a better choice, a better choice for our party, our nation and our world.

The article is entitled "The Year of the Organizer" and it appeared on the American Prospect's website. I'd like to explore that article and what it means to me.

First off let's start with a quote from the beginning of the article.

It is Obama's campaign that most clearly embodies many of the characteristics of a social movement -- a redemptive calling for a better society, coupling individual and social transformation. This shouldn't be surprising. Obama has enlisted hundreds of seasoned organizers -- including unions, community groups, churches, and environmental groups -- into his campaign. They, in turn, have mobilized thousands of volunteers -- many of them neophytes in electoral politics -- into tightly knit, highly motivated, and efficient teams. This organizing effort has turned out a new group of voters, many of them young people and first-time voters.

My political hero is Paul Wellstone. The quirky, proudly liberal Senator from my home state of Minnesota. Paul Wellstone's life is a extraordinary tale that came to a tragic end when his wife, daughter and campaign staff's plane crashed in 2002. One of my first memories that is politically related is the utter sadness of everyone when Paul Wellstone died. He, more then any other political in my memory had a unique bond with people.

That's because Paul Wellstone was a ordinary man who did amazing things. He spent his entire life battling for justice. If you have not already I strongly recomend you read his book "A Conscience of a Liberal." Paul Wellstone was also a organizer. He spent his adult life organizing people for positive change. When he ran a massive underdog campaign for the US Senate he ran a grassroots campaign based on experiences he had organizing people. I think Barack Obama has learned the lesson's of Paul and incorporated them into his campaign. I think that was true in South Carolina at least were Obama won by the largest margin.

Obama's landslide victory in South Carolina was due in large measure to this grassroots organizing approach, which dramatically expanded voter turnout. Obama's campaign had organizers in each of South Carolina's 46 counties, 32 Get Out the Vote offices throughout the state, and 154 "staging" areas where volunteers picked up precinct lists and campaign materials. The South Carolina campaign was so well organized they conducted two GOTV "dry runs" on the two previous Saturdays before the primary, practicing every step of the Election Day operation to make sure that all staff and volunteers understood their responsibilities.

On Election Day, the campaign had 15,000 volunteers in South Carolina, according to Jeremy Bird, the Obama campaign field director. In another departure from past campaigns, Bird targeted people who had never participated in politics before. Turnout increased to 532,000 this year from 293,000 in 2004. Twenty-seven percent of those who cast a ballot were first-time voters. Moreover, turnout in the Democratic primary exceeded Republican turnout a week earlier by 97,000 voters. As a result, Bird says, "South Carolina is in play in November if Barack is the nominee," challenging the conventional wisdom that a Democrat can't win in the state.

According to Bird, the Obama campaign made a decision early last year that they would not approach states with large African American populations in a traditional way.

"Most campaigns come into South Carolina with the belief that only blacks can talk to blacks and only whites can talk to whites," explained Bird, a former seminarian who studied with organizing guru Marshall Ganz at Harvard. "Barack Obama ran a campaign of unity. If we would have segregated ourselves like other campaigns have done it would have been disingenuous." Obama received 81 percent of the black vote and did particularly well among black voters aged 30 to 44.

The Clinton campaign, Bird said, ran "an old-school traditional campaign -- a top-down campaign based on political endorsements, not a campaign based on empowering and investing in people."

However political campaign's normally cannot do much but win an election. Although some people have argued that Obama is simply doing this to win an election. I think his campaign's goals are higher and this confirmed that to me.

The Obama campaign also hopes to leave behind a network of trained activists in South Carolina and other states.

"We have been digging in here since last April, which is unprecedented in a presidential campaign," Bird commented. "South Carolina does not have a tradition of grassroots organizing, but what we will leave behind are hundreds of trained organizers and volunteers who will now run for school board, city council, the state legislature," Bird predicted. "They will transform this state."

There is a amazing man named Joshua Stroman who was a volunteer for Obama's South Carolina campaign. I think he imbodies that hope that the campaign will lead to a transformation. I wrote a entire post on his story here. For now I will urge you to just watch his video:

As a community organizer for three years in Chicago in the late 1980s, Obama learned the skills of motivating and mobilizing people who had little faith in their ability to make politicians, corporations, and other powerful institutions accountable. Working with churches and neighborhood groups, Obama taught low-income people how to analyze power relations, gain confidence in their own leadership abilities, and work together to improve their housing, schools, and other basic services.

"What if a politician were to see his job as that of an organizer," he asked a local newspaper at the time, "as part teacher and part advocate, one who does not sell voters short but who educates them about the real choices before them?"

Since embarking on a political career, Obama hasn't forgotten the philosophical and practical lessons that he learned on the streets of Chicago and that are now central to his campaign for the White House.

Last year, Obama enlisted Marshall Ganz, one of the country's leading organizing theorists, to help train organizers and volunteers as a key component of his presidential campaign. In the early 1960s, Ganz dropped out of Harvard to work in the South with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the student wing of the civil-rights movement. He then returned to his home state of California to join Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, becoming a key architect of the union's early successes. The UFW combined a clear-eyed drive for more workers' power in the California fields and orchards with a deep spiritual yearning for personal and social change.

Ganz now teaches the history and practice of organizing at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "Organizing," he says, "combines the language of the heart as well as the head."

According to Ganz, "it is values, not just interests" that inspire people to participate in social movements. This approach is well-suited to Obama's own style of translating values into action by telling his own story in public.

A key tenet of community organizing is developing face to face contact with people so that they forge commitments to work together around shared values.

When Obama says unity and bipartisanship people think "phony politician" sometimes. But I think that kind of talk comes from his days on the South Side. When people are killing people, starving and having no were to go there is no time for dramatic "conflict," there is too much at stake. With help from people like Ganz he has tried to merge organizing with political campaigning.

Community organizers also distinguish themselves from traditional political campaign operatives who approach voters as customers through direct mail, telemarketing, and canvassing urging them to support their candidate as if they were selling soap.

This approach is reflected in how Obama's campaign has integrated itself into local communities. In Iowa, for example, campaign organizers, both paid staff and volunteers, were required to help in community recycling projects, tree planting and garbage pick-up -- making themselves available for the day-to-day tasks required to enhance the neighborhoods they were in.

Mitch Stewart, the Iowa field director, explained that "the Obama campaign merged the professional political operation and the movement operation."

The two places were Obama had the best team that focused on merging those two things together were Iowa and South Carolina. Obama won big in Iowa and he won big in South Carolina. Seems that it is working.

And then there is that "hope" thing. Another phony political saying, right?

A key part of every organizer's lexicon is "hope." For an organizer, hope is not merely a fuzzy political platitude but a fundamental part of what it means to be human. In the UFW, the phrase "si se puede" -- it can be done -- embodied this outlook. Obama has made "hope" an essential element of his political persona. After his overwhelming victory in South Carolina, Obama's victory stirring images of "healing the nation" and "overcoming the racial divide," were a key example of how he uses progressive-values language to surface deeper emotions.

Temo Figueroa, the son and nephew of UFW activists, and a UCLA graduate, worked as a union organizer before joining the Obama campaign as its national field director. According to Figueroa, most presidential campaigns take volunteers off the street and put them to work immediately on the "grunt" work of the campaign -- making phone calls, handing out leaflets, or walking door to door. The campaign's recent successes are the result of extensive training sessions that took place last year throughout the country.

The Obama campaign, he says, is different. Before it sent its volunteers into the fields, he explained, the campaign required them to go through several days of intense four-day training sessions called "Camp Obama." The sessions were led by Ganz and other experienced organizers, including Mike Kruglik, one of Obama's organizing mentors in Chicago. Potential field organizers were given an overview of the history of grassroots organizing techniques and the key lessons of campaigns that have succeeded and failed.

Reflecting upon his civil-rights and UFW experiences, Ganz told the Obama staffers and volunteers that "there was a celebration and joy to those movements. It was hard not to get involved."

I already put bolded those words but let's read them again.

Hope is not merely a fuzzy political platitude but a fundamental part of what it means to be human


Let's hope that the strategy that worked so well in Iowa and South Carolina will work again tomorrow. The campaign is certainly betting on it.

Obama's California field operation has been building since last July, when a number of initial training sessions were conducted. Heading into February, the Obama campaign has over 3,000 volunteers, according to Buffy Wicks, the 30-year-old California field director who had previously worked for Howard Dean in 2004, as an aide to Congressman Bob Filner of California, in the anti-war movement, and with the union-backed Wake-Up Wal-Mart campaign.

In California -- a huge state where political field organizers are a dying breed and media svengalis rule -- the Obama campaign is again bucking tradition. Wicks estimates the campaign is making around 18,000 calls a day, all with volunteer help. And in an Internet twist on the usual boiler-room phone-bank operations, phoners for Obama can obtain phone lists and scripts through their computers at home, obviating the need to gather in a single location -- a technology pioneered by MoveOn.Org. The campaign can track in real time the number of calls made, who is phoning, and the results of the calls.

Like Bird in South Carolina, Wicks is looking past the February primary to potential long-term impacts of the campaign. "We're training a new kind of political campaign organizer that speaks to who Barack is," she observes two weeks before the election. "We're trying to create community organizers out of our activists. There's so much energy and enthusiasm. It's just a matter of providing the infrastructure, the technology, the training, and the tools, and they feel part of a larger movement."

And I am too. That's why even though I'm only 14 and can't vote I'll be getting to my local caucus at 5 sharp with my precinct captain button on and all the materials in hand. That's the kind of campaign that is being run around the country. A campaign based on three fundamental principles. Respect, empower, include.

But to get to the general election. To try this grand experiment in the general election Obama is going to need you're vote tomorrow. But that's only the start.

If Obama secures the Democratic nomination and wins the White House, Ganz and other organizers will look for opportunities to encourage his organizing instincts to shape how he governs the nation, whom he appoints to key positions, and how he seeks to translate his campaign promises, such as reforming health care and tackling global warming, into public policy. Obama knows that he will have to find balance between working inside the Beltway and encouraging Americans to organize and mobilize to battle powerful corporate interests and congressional in-fighting. But if Obama wants to be a champion of change, he'll need to redefine the role of president as organizer-in-chief.

If you are ready for a organizer-in-chief then please vote tomorrow. Please donate so Obama can keep up the fight. Please volunteer. Don't get me wrong. Obama is not perfect and we will still have a lot of work to do even once he is in the White House. He won't be right on everything and we'll need to hold him accountable. We'll need to organize to bring that change and we will have to organize until we turn this world around. There is a long journey ahead of us but every moment we must keep these words in our head.

I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper

That's why Barack Obama worked on the South Side of Chicago as a community organizer. That's why he will be our organizer-in-chief. That's why I am part of this movement for change. That's why I will be convincing everyone I can to use their voice for me even though I cannot. I hope you will join me and vote for Barack Obama tomorrow. The world is watching.

Yes. We. Can.

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