Nadine Padilla, 25, had been doing get-out-the-vote work for the Native American Voters Alliance for two years when she was recruited by the Obama campaign, which was looking for Navajo organizers in New Mexico. She’d been an Obama fan since his 2004 DNC speech, and in August 2008 she took a position as field organizer for McKinley County, a rural area an hour from where she grew up.
“I showed up at headquarters, and the state director said, ‘You need to open an office…. This is what you’re gonna do. Go do it,'” Padilla recalls. She drove to Gallup, a town of some 20,000 whites, Native Americans and Latinos. At a coffee shop she fundraised from local Democratic donors to pay the deposit on an office, and opened up shop in a space with big glass windows on Main Street.
For a while, Padilla was lonely in there–locals were skeptical about participating. “Some people would say, ‘Why should I even vote? I have my own government,'” she recounts. (The Navajo nation has its own sovereign government.) But gradually, by conducting one-on-one meetings, Padilla developed a team of 130 volunteers. She says that the vast majority were working on a campaign for the first time, and most were under 30. Gallup has a small University of New Mexico campus, which turned out some college-age volunteers, and local high school students also signed up.
Padilla dropped phone sheets off in remote rural areas for less mobile volunteers. She also created a supervised kids’ area at the office so parents could phone-bank. The office became like a community center, with a front area where people drank coffee, listened to music and chatted. The challenge was to move them to the back, where the phone-banking and data entry happened. But by the end of the campaign, Padilla’s team was working nonstop–some volunteers were even sleeping in the office.
On election day the hard work paid off. “The volunteers did it themselves. They had come such a long way,” she says. “On the first day, they were like, ‘What do you want me to do? Talk to somebody about voting?’ to being able to run the entire day themselves. I just brought them coffee.”
On November 4 McKinley County had the highest increase in voter turnout in the state–36 percent–and Obama won it handily. Some of the volunteers are now preparing to campaign for a state representative candidate. For Padilla, that’s the most gratifying part of her experience. “On the campaign we always said, ‘Work yourself out of a job,'” she says. “Pass on these skills so that when you leave they’ll have those tools for whatever they want.”
Padilla has stayed in close touch with the volunteers, and she’s helping them strategize for the state campaign. After the election, though she was tempted by DC, Padilla decided to stay close to home. “I always knew I was needed on the reserve,” she says. Today she uses some of the skills she developed on the campaign in her role as a community organizer against uranium mining in northwestern New Mexico, where mining has created radioactive waste that continues to cause health problems like cancer. Padilla is the sole paid organizer for Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment, a coalition of volunteer-run groups, some of which are fighting new mining-company proposals while others work against soil contamination. It’s a daunting issue that has affected her community for decades, which is why she took the gig. “I was inspired to take this job after the Obama campaign, because I had this feeling that anything was possible,” she says.