For me, 2009 was a long, hard slog. It began on the Mall in January with cold feet and a warm heart. Yet almost before I had unpacked my suitcase, we were back fighting as hard as ever.
Like the proverbial dog who caught the bus, we rode a 10 ton block of rubber and steel going 60 miles an hour while we were barely hanging on with our teeth. At first, no one thought we could jump high enough and fast enough to succeed. But what we won was an economy still seemingly in free fall, nearly a decade of neglected liberal policy priorities, and a big tent Democratic coalition as busy arguing over who really won the election for Obama as focusing on how we move from campaign idea to policy reality.
Oh, and a 24/7 news cycle plus a hungry blogosphere making sure that every mistake, misstep or miscommunication got magnified a hundredfold.
And yet, as I turn the page to 2010, I'm really proud of what we collectively have accomplished. Being on the verge of a healthcare win that has failed every previous Administration who tried, and living many other key transformations is great. But I'm most proud that I was a part of OFA Year One.
Back on the eve of Inauguration, I wrote a diary called Hope Is a Four Letter Word that turns out to have predicted 2009 perfectly.
Hope is not for everyone. It is only for those strong enough -- or desperate enough -- to embrace it. It is cruel, harsh and demanding. Belief in change will break your heart almost every time. Hope won’t let you sit on the sidelines. You can’t take the easy way out. The disillusioned can safely withdraw. The Hopeful are driven to engage.
Now we’ve done it. We have made big promises that will be terribly hard work to deliver. Our new President has given everyday people a taste of power they will never forget, and we aren’t going anywhere. Right here in California, thousands of new Community Organizers are already taking what they learned through the campaign and applying it to their communities.
Hope means that Tuesday begins a new chapter that we have to help write. It means that next time I get disappointed I can’t just turn away and let someone else pick up the slack. It means that my belief in change must come with a commitment to act.
And so I have experienced 2009 as a lesson in the dark and difficult side of hope. When this new President asked me and many others who were part of the campaign to mobilize everyday Americans in support of his agenda I signed on. Once again, I was setting myself up - once again I was not taking the easy way out.
At first, I was certain that I didn't want to be a part of the "official" post-campaign organization. I had low expectations for it, and I wanted to be free to do some things I was pretty certain wouldn't be on the agenda. We have critical needs in California and I saw my calling post-November 2008 as supporting progressive organizing infrastructure on the state level on our state and local issues. I wanted to take my community organizer training and campaign experience and apply it in new ways and new places. And nothing could be as exciting or as historic as the nearly two years of my life I had given to Obama for America as a volunteer and a staffer.
But I was still happy to chip in a little during the transition period, before leaving the long term heavy lifting to others. The new organization decided to start by soliciting input from campaign volunteers and staff about what a new organization should do. Most of November and December was spent in this reflective process driven by grassroots input. I got a series of emails asking me to complete a survey, participate in a focus group, and host my own local meeting to provide feedback about what OFA should be. Literally hundreds of thousands of people provided feedback on what OFA should be. Here's OFA's Deputy Director Jeremy Bird explaining how that process looked from the inside:
Immediately following the 2008 election, several of President Obama’s senior organizers spent six weeks talking to supporters and mining the data of a massive online survey to understand what volunteers wanted to see the 2008 campaign become. We held one-on-one conference calls, hosted a massive in-person conference of over 300 volunteer leaders and carefully analyzed survey data gathered at thousands of house parties around the country.
Our volunteers were incredibly clear: their number one goal was to organize around the policies President Obama articulated during the campaign.
According to the feedback results that OFA shared with us, around 80% of former volunteers and staff surveyed believed that supporting the President's agenda should be part of the new organization's mission, and overwhelming majorities of them wanted to stay involved past the campaign.
Based on that feedback, OFA was launched as a separate project of the DNC. Its mission: (1) to support the President's legislative agenda and (2) to build localized grassroots organizing capacity across the nation.
As the new organization started to take shape I saw that it was truly something unique in the world of politics. It presented innumerable challenges, and also great opportunities. No President had ever tried to build his own field organization, so there was no template to follow. It would have to reflect the creative, scrappy, local organizing philosophy that had made the campaign so successful, while also being able to represent the President in tone and conduct.
Most importantly, the entire strategy of what was to become Organizing for America was based on mobilizing everyday Americans to become more engaged citizens and active participants in our democracy. Volunteer leaders would be asked to form local teams and reach out to voters in their neighborhoods and states to call Congress, sign petitions, and get trained on policy, politics and community organizing. The President himself, in the video announcing the organization just before the Inauguration, put it best:
The change we worked so hard for will not happen unless ordinary Americans get involved.
Ordinary Americans. Not just activists. Not just the usual suspects or the existing organizations. The people who don't normally participate in politics. Those were the people who the campaign mobilized like never before. I know them - they were some of the best volunteer leaders I encountered. Teachers, techies, clergy, clerical workers, custodians, cooks, scientists, students, artists, actors, accountants, lawyers, librarians. Yes, a few of them were bloggers, some had been organizing practically since birth, some were from unions, from Move-On, from DFA and many other places. But so many had their political awakening with the campaign. Once the campaign ended, we needed to keep those folks engaged. They were the key to reshaping American politics over the next generation.
To reach them OFA was proposing the same model as before - neighborhood-based organizing. This is the hard, invisible, thankless work that doesn't get you written up in Politico or covered on CNN.
As I wrote last summer, OFA is perhaps best understood as "The President's Field Team":
So that's why I'm excited about the President's Field Team. He knows how to [organize] better than almost anyone. And he wants to use it in a way no one else has tried, to build a nationally linked, locally-organized, team-based volunteer model to lobby Congress for health care, education and green energy. And the best part is that we are continuing to build up our progressive organizing capacity. Volunteers can learn from OFA and go work locally on what they care about, or join other campaigns.
And so by early spring I had totally changed my mind. I began volunteering to help build OFA in California. From the very beginning we put work into field organizing and capacity building through local volunteer teams. These basic building blocks turned out some pretty earth shattering results in Iowa, the many key primary victories, and the fall election. The email list and innovative online tools mattered. But they could not have succeeded without a commitment to organizing local leadership on the ground.
I specifically took on the work of helping develop training for our volunteer organizers, because to me, building a huge cadre of highly trained community organizers across California was a gift I could give to our state and its needs while still working for OFA and carrying out its mission. As we came through the spring, as work on health care began, I was excited and proud of my work.
But it seemed like every "informed" political observer had already decided we were a failure:
From Zephyr Teachout: Organizing for America sent out a request for house parties today, asking people to watch a video about Obama's economic recovery plan, talk about it with their friends, and build support for it. While there will be tweaks, this is the kind of action we can anticipate from OFA.
I predict that there will be perhaps a thousand of such parties, then hundreds, then dozens. I think OFA will fail in its mission to directly engage Obama supporters in supporting Obama's executive actions. And I think this is a very good thing. . . .
From Ari Melber: OFA launched a new email and petition drive on Tuesday afternoon, ratcheting up pressure on Congress to pass the President's health care plan. . . . It is early, but so far, these OFA legislative "organizing" efforts run the risk of being boring, vague and redundant.
From Harold Meyerson on OFA's early health care efforts: All very commendable, and about as likely to affect the outcome of the health-care deliberations as the phases of the moon.
Expectations and aspirations for a better world began to collide with the hard work of making that happen, and all around me I heard little but cynicism, fear and doubt. But I could see that we were making a difference, and I knew that giving up was not really an option.
At the time I said they were misunderstanding the method. The idea is to build organizational capacity, so when really critical moments in the campaign happened, OFA could deliver huge numbers. Easy asks get more people engaged, who can then be cultivated as local leaders and tasked with organizing others. This multiplier effect, combined with local on the ground knowledge and credibility, can yield huge payoffs.
It's hard, tedious work to build neighborhood by neighborhood. The work is invisible and the time to payoff is pretty long. What lead to millions of volunteers on Election Day was weeks and months of much smaller below the radar screen work. . . . Back in late 2007, a lot of people were writing off the Obama campaign. But from the ground, it looked like a potential winner. Time will tell if we are about to see the same dynamic play out again. But there's good reason to hope it will.
It's been a very tough year. OFA volunteer organizers and a small heroic paid staff have been doing thankless, tireless work in every state and every Congressional District in the country trying to get the votes for healthcare reform and trying to build a long term infrastructure to mobilize those everyday Americans and get them engaged in the political fights that really affect them. And beyond thankless, it is often worse. Often we struggle with the attacks on our work, not by the Republicans, or by the tea party crowd, but by the people who we thought were supposed to be on our side. There are no shortage of opinions about what OFA is or should be, but there does seem to be a shortage of facts.
For example, a recent post at Tech President makes this surprising claim:
Now, there is a new enthusiasm gap, but it's no longer in Obama's favor. That's because you can't order volunteers to do anything--you have to motivate them, and Obama's compromises to almost every powers-that-be are tremendously demotivating. The returns OFA is getting on email blasts appear to be dropping significantly, for example.
The evidence? A few anecdotes. Contrast that with my email inbox, where OFA tells me:
Hundreds of her fellow OFA Community Organizers around the country have already volunteered more than 200,000 hours doing similar work. Thousands more have taken on other leadership positions in every single state. And we're still growing -- nearly a million people who had never volunteered for the presidential campaign have signed up with OFA this year
Some enthusiasm gap, eh? But I am not surprised by the disconnect. The critics get plenty of attention.No one pays attention to the organizers, who are just out working, volunteering, making calls and knocking doors. More importantly, those small asks and baby steps have to happen first. You can't just press a button, send out an email and expect to succeed. You need to build and train, re-engage and renew.
And as Al Giordano tells us, empowerment doesn't always mean what you think it means.
So here are a few facts about what some everyday Americans have done to move healthcare reform:
OFA kicked off our campaign for health reform last June. More than 2.5 million people volunteered through our campaign by signing a statement of support, making a phone call, attending an event, visiting a congressional office or going door to door. Our volunteers organized 25,000 events in all 50 states in every Congressional District. Since August, our network has generated more than 1 million calls to Congress in support of reform. And in one week last August, when tea party protesters were burning Members of Congress in effigy, “death panel” rumors dominated water-cooler talk and Washington pundits were ready to pen health reform’s obituary, 65,000 OFA supporters visited their local Congressional offices – demonstrating massive public support for reform and keeping the fight alive for another day.
Indeed, the August mobilization was barely noticed at the time but critical to the fight. Robert Creamer, a veteran of the fight against Social Security privatization, describes the impact:
Exactly the same thing would have happened with health care reform in September of 2009 had OFA had not stepped up to coordinate a counter-offensive. For those of us working to pass health insurance reform it was like the cavalry arriving over the hill. OFA chaired a task force of progressive organizations -- and mobilized thousands of health care reform supporters to attend town meetings across the country. That effort turned the tide in the last weeks of August and saved health insurance reform. . . . You can say without question, that if OFA did not exist, that the House and Senate would not be negotiating the final terms of health insurance reform -- that there would have been no health care reform at all.
I would expand the credit Creamer is giving to OFA to all the allies who also brought their folks out for healthcare reform - HCAN, the unions, groups of medical professionals, community organizations, and many others. But what OFA added was numbers and local organizing capacity, making all our voices louder to the members of Congress who mattered.
Of course, many people missed this story entirely:
I turned to page A2, and there was a classically cynical Dana Milbank column, trashing a Democratic member's press conference on health care and talking about Democrats trying, "to pick up the pieces of the shattered health care bill."
Then on page A4, a column about a town hall meeting in rural Colorado that had more anti-reform than pro-reform people showing up in attendance.
On the other hand, in my office, I am reading reports that look like this:
A report from field activists analyzing town hall meetings that showed more than 15,000 people turned out clearly in favor of health reform, compared to 1,200 clearly opposed. (Along with quite a few someplace in the middle, with thoughtful questions.)
A second report analyzing town hall turnout trends from local news accounts suggesting that in most of the town halls reported on, supporters outnumbered opponents.
Reports from pro-reform rallies over last weekend in at least 30 places around the country, including: over 1,000 in Denver; 1,000 in Columbus, Ohio; 1,500 in St. Louis; 2,800 in Somerville, MA; 1,000 in Vancouver, WA. And hundreds in small towns as well: 400 in Clinton, Iowa; 200 in Jefferson City, MO; 150 people in Columbus, GA; 700 in Salinas; 300 in Grand Rapids, MI; 300 in Green Bay, WI.
The OFA program being run out of the DNC, after being derided for months by the traditional media for its slow start, reported some stunning numbers at the start of the Obama/OFA town hall on August 24th: Over 1.5 million have taken action since they launched the health insurance reform campaign on June 6th; 11,906 local events have happened, and average of 171 events per day; 231,572 personal stories have been submitted; OFA members made 64,912 local visits in one week.
In a matter of 96 hours, a group of bloggers raised over $400,000 from 6,800 people to support strong supporters of a public option.
From my perspective out here in California, it seems like all I spent the last year doing was explaining over and over to the folks who are supposed to be our friends and allies that this is actually a form of building progressive power - one they can choose to join or not but one that will actually help us over the long term accomplish our policy goals. I think they don't see the people I do - the ones who before this spring didn't even know who their member of Congress was but now are regular visitors to the District office and can explain to you exactly how reconciliation rules operate. Or the folks who never worked as organizers before and somehow managed to get people out in their communities and outnumber the tea party crowd at our Congressional townhalls in California 8 to 1.
And it is those stories behind the numbers that actually give me hope. The real kind. A long term effort that gets more Americans educated about politics and engaged is truly revolutionary, and I have been proud to be a part of it this past year.
2010 might be even more exciting. What is coming down the pike is an opportunity for more feedback, working with state teams to plan for 2010, and an intention to "to train our fire on the elections later this year." I'd totally agree with Jeremy when he says "we've taken our lumps and have plenty to learn." But I am imagining using our neighborhood teams working on the ground in key districts so the President can get a Congress that will support our agenda. I'm thinking about taking all we have learned, and combining with other organizations, to change the current narrative of despair about fall 2010.
Yeah, probably setting myself up for another year of painful, challenging, backbreaking - hoping.
I'm giving the last word to Karoli:
Without question, change is difficult, even when the change agents want it. There is too much change, too little change, change in the wrong direction, disagreements about what changes to make first. There is a hunger for change and a fear of it. There is disappointment that the change isn’t one viewed as best and most desirable, and nothing spells cynicism faster than a disappointed idealist.
Hope is the more difficult road. Hope requires change to come at a pace that is possible rather than one that’s ideal. It sees smaller pathways that sometimes wind through unseen futures but usually emerge to merge on the other side with the road called “progress”.
Cynics walk the road of criticism and sometimes even despair. Criticism, when constructive, is the healthiest road to true, lasting change. Criticism, when it’s personal, destructive, and defeatist is a road to cynical disconnects and non-participation.
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I am a volunteer with Organizing for America in California. When I write here I speak for myself and not for the organization. My diaries, and all the words in them, are my own.