The Obama Generation, Revisited
Plenty of former staffers went back to previous gigs or enrolled in grad school, but some faced bleaker prospects. According to Demond Drummer, 26, a field organizer during the primaries in South Carolina, one of his most dedicated volunteers was a high school student who got to chair a meeting with Obama's sister. That young man had a history of discipline problems in school, and he is now behind bars (Drummer's not sure why); he will be out this month. "He's a leader, but he had nothing else to do after the election," says Drummer. In Kansas City, Missouri, where he lives, Exley sees former superstar field organizers working at coffee shops.
Exley, whose New Organizing Institute offered fellowships to several former field organizers, including Drummer, believes that Obama campaign veterans represent an extraordinary talent pool for the progressive movement. "On the right, they always suck up talent after elections to keep them warm and employed with healthcare until the next campaign," he says. "I think [progressive] groups didn't understand that the experience of being an Obama field organizer was something special and enriching, because on other campaigns people didn't really get much out of it. In most places, the Kerry field campaign didn't give young staff or volunteers a disciplined, accountable experience. The Obama field campaign was in most places an incredible work experience for young people."
Absent any systematic attempts to recruit them, hundreds of Obama campaign vets flocked to Washington in hopes of finding work in the administration or the many nonprofits headquartered there. Many remained unemployed as the administration's hiring process dragged on: after working for months with no days off, they found themselves on an extended unpaid vacation in an expensive city, draining their savings accounts.
Some who survived the long wait were rewarded with administration jobs. Hallie Montoya Tansey, 29, known for her work as field director for the League of Young Voters, joined the Obama campaign early and was a deputy field director in Wisconsin for the general election. She's now a confidential assistant to the chief of staff of the education secretary.
At The Nation's request, Montoya Tansey compiled a list of 101 young staffers and dedicated volunteers she'd met while on the Obama field campaign. Their current occupations offer some insight into where field campaign grads have gone since the election. Of the 101 she profiled, about 70 had never worked on a political campaign before. Since the campaign, sixty-three have found jobs within the administration and its many departments. A former drug and alcohol counselor works for the Office of Drug Control Policy; a former producer on MTV's The Hills was hired as a data manager at the DNC. Another nine have taken jobs on new campaigns or with elected officials. Others are back in school, unemployed, working for nonprofits or waiting tables. (Montoya Tansey's sample is consistent with reports from other former field organizers.)
Since the election, two of the thirty campaigners I spoke with have worked on Organizing for America's campaign for healthcare, and another, Nicole Derse, has a role in running it. Marianne von Nordeck, 29, is a former concert cellist who'd never participated in politics before. She was mentored by Derse during the primaries in Massachusetts and New Hampshire--"Nicole totally changed my life," says von Nordeck--and went on to work as the field director of a State Senate campaign in the general election. She now works as a healthcare organizer for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), a union with 1.6 million members nationwide. Von Nordeck went a year without asthma inhaler refills because she had no health insurance, so the issue resonated with her.
"I couldn't go back to what I did before," she says. "We didn't all drop what we were doing and change our lives just because we liked Obama. We wanted to move the country forward." Of the nineteen campaign coordinators AFSCME hired last spring to work on healthcare reform, fifteen are Obama campaign veterans.
Not all of the former field campaign workers have von Nordeck's zest for policy change, but even if they're not active community organizers, several hope to return to organizing as soon as they can get jobs in the field. Many interviewees emphasized that the campaign gave them a new sense of community.
That's true for Mike Jones, 20, a sophomore at New York University. Jones was one of the young superstars of the primary season; he fundraised in order to volunteer for the campaign ("Working for free is very expensive," he says) and was eventually hired as a field organizer. He worked in Nevada, Texas and his home state, North Carolina--all while he still had braces on his teeth. "If I had emerged from the campaign with only a reinforced political ideology I would have been missing the point," says Jones. "Before, I didn't think of community as an instrument for achieving." Over the years, Jones's sense of community has been shaky. Because of his parents' financial difficulties, he spent high school in a Christian group home called Crossnore, which supported him financially during the campaign as well as in college.
Jones received an undergraduate research grant from NYU that he's now using to invest in the community he left behind. He interviews young residents of group homes in California, New Jersey and North Carolina about how they construct their personal histories despite their transient lives. It's a skill he developed on the campaign during those crucial one-on-one meetings with volunteers. "It was the experience of sharing a personal narrative with a complete stranger that laid the foundation for the organizing," he says.