The Obama Generation, Revisited

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WireTap Magazine
Elizabeth Mendez Berry
November 6, 2009
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(This article originally appeared in The Nation. )

Watch a video about the Obama youthquake, one year later, here.

Not everyone at President Obama's healthcare rally at the University of Maryland on September 17 was as "fired up and ready to go" as he was. There were frat boys clowning around, students excited to see a president -- any president -- young men in matching T-shirts who were there solely because of their sheet metal workers union and one antiabortion activist with remarkable lungs. But it's safe to say that on that drizzly day, the Comcast Center was packed with 12,000 mostly young people who supported the president and his healthcare plan. As the marching band played "Copacabana" not once, not twice, but three times, student volunteers made sure the spectators -- some of whom had lined up at 5:30 am -- stayed within the cordoned areas. Young women in Healthcare '09 T-shirts craned to catch a glimpse of Obama, and after he finally emerged there was a cacophony of "I love you, Barack!"

On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama won 66 percent of voters under 30, increasing the Democratic share of the youth vote by 12 percent over 2004. Young people were among Obama's earliest and most important supporters; people under 30, for example, represented Obama's margin of victory in Iowa, the crucial first caucus. Rallies like this one, with thousands of young people putting their hands in the air for healthcare reform, are the most obvious indication of continuing youth enthusiasm for the president. Plenty in the crowd had volunteered for his campaign, including Eric Stehmer, 28, a University of Maryland graduate who has been unemployed for a year and has only catastrophic health coverage; Mouhamad Diabate, 21, a U of M student who canvassed for Obama and has several thousand dollars in medical bills that he's trying to ignore; and Chrisi West, 30, an enthusiastic Virginia "supervolunteer" whose parents lost their home when she was a child after her father got sick, and who seemed to know all the student volunteers from their work together on the campaign.

West had never touched politics before Obama, and now she's addicted, continuing to volunteer thirty-five hours a week for Organizing for America, the DNC group that grew out of the Obama campaign. The extraordinary impact of Obama's election on young people is not limited to supporting his legislative priorities. It's harder to measure than the audience at a rally, but the campaign is the reason, for example, a former professional cellist is now a union organizer and a former firefighter is an environmentalist. It galvanized a generation of first-time volunteers, and a year later many of them are still working for change they can believe in -- which doesn't necessarily mean they're working for Obama himself.

In interviews with thirty young people around the country who worked on the Obama field campaign, almost all said that they continued their activism well after the endorphins of winning wore off. Obama has been called a rock star, but this group's experiences suggest that the campaign instilled a commitment to service, not a cult of personality. Though many former campaigners are still fans and several now work for the Obama administration, most are less interested in Washington politics than they are in community organizing. As former staffer Marcus Ryan, 25, says, "Once you turn on that community organizing perspective, it's hard to turn off."

According to experts and campaign veterans, the Obama for America field operation hooked its workers on organizing in a way never seen before. As former New Mexico staffer Elizabeth Kistin, 28, puts it, "The candidate gets people in the door, but it's the campaign that keeps them coming back." The Obama for America catchphrase was "Respect, Empower, Include," and the campaign offered young volunteers responsibility galore.

Still, not every worker had the same transformative experience. By all accounts this was the most diverse presidential field campaign ever, but it was largely white, middle-class college graduates who had the time and means to move from swing state to swing state as volunteers. Many of them earned staff positions as a result. But despite its weaknesses, the campaign seems to have achieved the near impossible: making crunchy old community organizing sexy. The question is: what will these freshly minted young organizers do with their new skills?

After the election, about half of the thirty interviewees are in school or returned to their old jobs, but the lives of the other half completely changed. Four work for the administration, five started their own Washington nonprofit, two are full-time organizers, two are organizers in training and one joined Teach for America. Three who were at different stages of becoming lawyers now have other plans. The interviewees joined the campaign for many reasons: because they identified with Obama, because they were sick of complaining, because they were antiwar, because they wanted healthcare reform, because they felt guilty for not helping John Kerry, because they loved Michelle.

Though most of them uprooted themselves and dedicated at least a month to the campaign, some integrated their activism into their everyday lives. Lana Wilson, 26, of New York, held a series of "Obamaerobics" fundraisers and sold Barack Your Body T-shirts to raise money for the campaign. Anthony Williams, 22, of Cincinnati, hired a white limousine to take people to the polls during a voter registration gig. Sgt. Mike Buchholz, 23, started a Soldiers for Obama Facebook group while he was in training at Fort Gordon, Georgia. Longtime political observers are in awe of what Obama accomplished. "I spent most of my adult life where you say, Young people don't vote," says Democratic strategist Paul Maslin. "Now we have to throw aside those assumptions. That's a terrific thing. Obama took what we did with [Howard] Dean to new heights. People clicked in and clicked on. That activism can't be switched off easily."

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.


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 resume 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.

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.

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. "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.

Elizabeth Mendez Berry's work has appeared in The Washington Post, Vibe, The Village Voice, and Time, among many others.

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