At the top of a row house in Washington’s Dupont Circle is a cramped office filled with enthusiastic young people and computers. The only decorations are marker-drawn charts: work plans and contact lists. There’s a small balcony that’s used for smoke breaks and interviews with potential interns. It could be a political campaign’s headquarters, and in a way it is: it’s the office of DC Project, a fledgling environmental nonprofit founded by five twentysomething Obama volunteers and their ex-firefighter friend.
DC Project’s goal is to connect people trained in green technology with demand for that technology by using tactics its founders learned on the ground in states like Michigan, Florida and New Hampshire during the 2008 campaign. Marcus Ryan, 25, worked as a regional field director in Florida and moved to DC after the election with a fellow former Tatanka Hotshots firefighter, John Lauer, 25. They connected with DC’s largest homeless shelter, the Community for Creative Non-Violence, and held roundtable meetings to assess the needs of those hardest hit by the recession. That research informed conversations at their Takoma Park apartment with Kristen Psaki, 24, who had connected with Ryan on the trail in Florida. “We were sitting on the floor, drinking Red Bull, talking about how to change the world,” she says. It was there that they developed the idea of DC Project. Psaki, who moved to Washington to pursue a job in the administration, decided to remain on the outside instead.
The organization was incorporated in May. Currently, it’s focused on Weatherize DC, which “utilizes the community-based field methods of the Obama for America campaign to conquer market barriers and spur homeowner investment in weatherization.” The project hopes to weatherize 200 DC homes by March 2010.
Executive director Will Byrne, 25, is from Massachusetts and finished the campaign as the regional field director in Lansing, Michigan. “The campaign changed my worldview completely,” he says. “It showed me that bottom-up, grassroots organizing could change the world. It taught me how to listen, not how to talk.” The group now has nine full-time staffers, nine campus fellows and more than 200 volunteers at five college campuses in the capital region.
For Max Harper, 26, joining DC Project represented a happy ending to a bumpy post-campaign period. An environmentalist and video producer who’d been a “Swiss Army knife” on the campaign’s new-media team, he worked for the Obama transition team after the election. He was broke but moved to DC and took a volunteer position nonetheless, crashing on friends’ couches. When the transition period ended, he says, “It was radio silence. You didn’t know if you should talk about being in the administration. It was frustrating not to activate that energy.” In the end, he reconnected with Psaki, whom he knew from the campaign, and joined the DC Project team.
“Our hypothesis is that young people want to do more than advocate; they want to organize,” says Lauer. During one three-hour stretch, five young volunteers stopped by the office. During a recent field blitz, fifty-five volunteers went door to door pitching weatherization as a way to save money. “We identify a leader in the community–maybe someone who weatherized their own home,” says Psaki. “It’s much more powerful coming from a neighbor.”