The Obama Generation, Revisited
It's clear that the Obama campaign has had a striking impact on the paths of young people who had never been involved in politics before. Until November 2007, Marcus Ryan was a firefighter with the Tatanka Hotshots in South Dakota. When he heard Obama's speech during the New Hampshire primary, he says, "The hairs raised on the back of my neck. I realized something's happening in America, and you either answer that call or you don't." The 25-year-old joined the Obama campaign as a volunteer in Texas. By the time of the general election, he was on staff as the regional field director in Miami. On November 4, after the election had been called for Obama, Ryan strategized with fellow campaign workers over rum and Cokes about how to use green jobs to fight poverty. Soon after, he and several other young Obama veterans came up with the DC Project, which aims to generate demand for green jobs [see "DC's New Green Shoots," page 17]. "It's more exciting now, because the campaign was a promise of what was possible," he says. "And now we're trying to make sure that promise is granted."
Caroline Gibbons, 22, had never voted before; she was eligible in 2004 but didn't change her registration from Queens, where she grew up, to the Bronx, where she was studying at Fordham University. "I'm very liberal and outspoken, but I thought of elections as something for the wealthy and well connected," she says. That changed her senior year. She'd been a fan of Obama's since his 2004 DNC speech, and starting in the fall of 2007 she registered voters on street corners. After graduating, she forfeited her law school deposit and accepted a Teach for America position instead. "I thought I'd be a hypocrite if I took the 'When in doubt, be a lawyer,' route," she says. In August 2008 Gibbons started as a second grade teacher in Coahoma County, a poor area in the Mississippi Delta. She changed her registration and drove people to the polls on November 4; the county went 73 percent for Obama. "My students think he's the best president we've ever had," she says. "Teaching is one way the momentum I felt from the campaign is actually carried out, day to day. These kids can keep it going."
Some of the first-time volunteers are like Chrisi West: still behind Obama 100 percent--she phone-banks and campaigns for healthcare with Organizing for America at the same farmers' markets she visited before the election, on top of her full-time job at a nonprofit. But others have been disappointed by the president on issues like civil liberties, the Iraq War, the presence of usual suspect lobbyists or because of the way the White House handled the Van Jones case. For Arizonan Jake Harvey, 20, who dedicated much of his freshman and sophomore years at Northern Arizona University to the field campaign, it's gay rights.
Almost a year after the election, Harvey, who was diagnosed in April with leukemia, has mixed feelings about Obama's presidency. "I still have a box of campaign gear and newspaper clippings from 2007 that I will one day share with my children, grandchildren and the students I teach," he says. "But now that he's been in office for nine months, I've become a little more cynical. As a gay person, I am holding him to the fire to deliver."
Before the election, Harvey wasn't in the legislative loop. He is now, and as soon as he's recovered from chemo, he plans to get more involved in gay rights organizations focusing on issues like "don't ask, don't tell" and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Like everyone interviewed for this article, Harvey had his own reasons for devoting a year to Obama. But though the interviewees' priorities are different, the skills they developed are similar, as is the sense that they can organize communities to win.
This is the "Yes We Can" generation. Working on the Obama field campaign has given them an unrestrained, sometimes naïve optimism, and if Obama indoctrinated them with anything, it's a belief in the power of civic engagement. Some plan to use the tools they learned to hold the man they elected accountable. More want to advance their own issues on their own terms. But none of them want to be Associate No. 27 at a corporate law firm. They're just hoping somebody notices and offers them a job.