The Obama Generation, Revisited | The Nation


The Obama Generation, Revisited

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Professor Peter Dreier of Occidental College, who trained workers during the campaign and teaches community organizing, says that the key change from previous presidential elections is the difference between marketing a product and activating a community. "This campaign was about building relationships among people that last beyond election day," he says. Partly because of the never-ending primary battle, Obama for America had offices in rural areas that had previously been ignored by candidates. In New Mexico, for example, the Obama campaign had thirty-nine offices in advance of the general election, compared with Kerry's sixteen in 2004. But beyond the many warm bodies, there was the strategy that empowered them.

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Elizabeth Méndez Berry
Elizabeth Méndez Berry, an award-winning journalist, has written about culture and politics for publications...

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While the Edwards and Clinton campaigns skipped young people in favor of reliable older voters, former youth director Hans Riemer poured resources into cultivating the youth of Iowa. His team developed the Barack Stars program, which targeted 17-year-olds who would be eligible to participate in the caucuses. "Our whole student program was run by volunteers," says Riemer, who previously worked for Rock the Vote. "Barack represents a thousand different answers to what young people were looking for," he says. "Who he is, his background, the issues he's worked on, his vision, his style." Riemer and other strategists developed a campaign climate that kept volunteers coming back. Field organizers around the country built comfy offices that became rec centers for young people.

To veteran activists used to running campaigns on a shoestring, Obama for America's volunteer-driven strategy wasn't rocket science, but it was breaking news to the establishment. Volunteers on most large-scale campaigns can expect to phone-bank or door-knock and not much else. But on the Obama campaign, they could be promoted to several key roles: team leader, campus captain, data coordinator, phone-bank captain or house party captain. The local field organizer would meet with a prospective volunteer one-on-one; this initial conversation usually involved storytelling, during which the staffer explained what brought him to the campaign and then asked the volunteer for her story. From there, he would ask her to commit to something: hosting a house party or recruiting other volunteers, for example.

"What was so remarkable about the Obama field campaign is that it took a leap of faith in ordinary people," says Zack Exley, the former organizing director for MoveOn.org and the Kerry campaign's online communications director. "For thousands and thousands of young people, it was the first big responsibility they took on." Nicole Derse, 31, the training director of Organizing for America, agrees. "Our success as a campaign depended on young people's leadership," she says. "At Penn State, we told our volunteers, 'If you don't organize your dorms, they're not going to get organized. If you don't get them registered to vote, they probably won't vote.' Young people aren't expected to do that."

While many staffers and volunteers speak of the excitement in the campaign offices, the work wasn't always fun. Zerlina Maxwell, 28, who took a year off from law school at Rutgers to work as a field organizer in Virginia, experienced the highs and lows. The high was Karl, a dedicated 89-year-old volunteer who arrived early for every Saturday-morning canvass. The low happened when she knocked on a door on a quiet street in Yorktown. "This woman said, Nigger, get off of my porch and take your shit with you!" says Maxwell. "She threw the literature back at me and slammed the door."

Maxwell wasn't the only young worker to experience racial tensions while working on the campaign for the first black president. Speaking off the record, many African-American staffers and volunteers noted that the static wasn't just with belligerent voters. Some mention a lack of respect on the part of young white field organizers for fellow organizers or local volunteers, some of whom had much more experience. In some states, white field organizers were sent into any and all communities, but black organizers worked only in African-American areas.

Others were frustrated by the weaknesses of the campaign's mostly young, inexperienced staff. Obamaerobics instructor Lana Wilson volunteered in Toledo, Ohio, for six weeks before the election and wasn't entirely sold. "They had limitless energy and enthusiasm," she says. "But they had no office experience and no experience delegating tasks or making people feel appreciated. I thought, There'll be an arrogant generation of people saying, 'I worked on the Obama campaign.'"

Wilson needn't worry too much about their egos. Though some campaign staffers now work for the administration or nonprofits, it turns out that in this economy a year as a field organizer isn't the résumé boost some may have hoped for. Young organizers emerged from victory into a full-blown recession, with high unemployment, huge cuts in the nonprofit sector and a 21 percent decrease in internships nationwide. Much of the scaffolding for civic engagement and the entry-level positions that come with it had shrunk or disappeared.

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