The Community Organizing Renaissance

By Al Giordano

With the passing of the final debate (one which only confirmed the trajectory - toward Obama - of the past month) now in the past, it remains to be seen whether the commercial news media will discover the real story of the 2008 campaign: the ground game.

While the commercial media obsesses over an alleged Ohio plumber (who apparently might not be licensed to practice that trade) the real everyman and everywoman - the ones that don't generally make more than a quarter-million dollars a year - can be found in the real towns and cities of America, on the front lines of the community organizing renaissance.

On Monday, Micah Sifry of TechPresident did some counting by hand:

-# of upcoming McCain events happening within a 25 mile radius of Orlando, Florida: 8

-# of upcoming Obama events happening within a 25-mile radius of Orlando: 84

-# of upcoming McCain events within a 25-mile radius of Dayton, Ohio: 8

-# of upcoming Obama events within a 25-mile radius of Dayton: 57

By Wednesday, he was able to quantify the ground game nationwide using Internet technology, which led to that video above, and this observation:

...while playing around with both sites' tools, I discovered that Obama's campaign will also allow you to export the resulting list as a structured data file, which for the geeks in the audience is like manna from heaven. In particular, you can get a KML file, which is short for "Keyhole Markup Language"--which means you can easily put Obama's events on Google Earth.

From that realization, it wasn't far to this: a visualization of all of Obama's upcoming events (there are more than 10,000 I think) between now and Election Day.

There are ten thousand potential newspaper, TV and radio news stories in those numbers, and at least as many "reporters" in need of a good report, but as during the primaries, the commercial media are leaving the real story of the 2008 United States presidential election to a few intrepid online journalists and bloggers. When on Election Night they will raise their eyebrows and go, wow, just wow, how the hell did that happen?, it will be the Field Hands here, and a very few folks like Sifrey, like Sean Quinn at 538 and Zack Exley at The Huffington Post who will have documented the answer: It was the organizing, stupid!

Quinn, in particular, has been doing yeoman's work. Weeks back, he started in Nevada and began the long drive across the fruited plain, posting pretty much daily from the road in the battleground states. There, he's found real people making real news, folks like Debrah Harleston in Northwest Ohio:

Most of her life spent as a Republican, Debrah Harleston volunteered heavily for George Bush in 2004. As she threw herself into helping Barack Obama in Toledo, one of her first questions to her organizer was, "why are we canvassing so soon?"

Debrah's story is uniquely her own, but also very much like the story of tens of thousands of everyday people that took history into their own hands this year:

Now that Debrah has settled into her role as one of Obama's Toledo Community Directors, she's amazed at the sophistication of the Obama structure. As a Community Director, she oversees three Neighborhood Team Leaders, volunteers who comprise the heart of Obama's volunteering infrastructure. Each neighborhood team, in turn, has up to five different coordinators: (1) the canvass coordinator; (2) the phonebank coordinator; (3) the volunteer coordinator; (4) the data coordinator; and (5) where applicable, the faith coordinator.

In Ohio, Campaign for Change State Director Jeremy Bird told us, there are 1,231 defined neighborhoods, as of August 25 there were about 800 in place, and as of Saturday approximately 1,100 NTLs had been tested and were up in operation. By "tested," Bird said, each NTL had undergone and met a series of specific challenges the field organizers had presented.

First, can the potential NTL organize a group of people? Whether by hosting a house party, a faith forum with a church group, or some other type of organizational meeting, the potential NTL needs to show they can lead the organization of their neighbors.

Second, can the potential NTL pass the voter contact test? Can he or she lead a canvass, can he or she build a group phonebanking night? It's a leadership test, built around voter contact.

Third, are they willing to make the final commitment by attending specific training for their role? Debrah Harleston smiled as she told us about the imminent blooming of satellite offices throughout the Toledo area so that neighborhood teams can begin running right in the neighborhoods autonomously.

Zack Exley, in another Ohio region, found another such unsung heroine, Glenna Fisher:

In her job at a Middletown, Ohio, steel factory, Glenna Fisher managed the preparation and shipping of millions of pounds of steel per year until her retirement six years ago. But when she has volunteered for democratic campaigns in the past, no one ever asked her to do anything more complicated than calling voters with a script.

This year, the field organizer (FO) assigned to her town, Ryan Clay, had much bigger plans for her.

"He'd gotten my name from info I'd entered on the Obama website listing ways in which I'd be willing to volunteer," Glenna explained in the Hamilton office before a regular report-in with Ryan. "He called and we set up a time to meet at a local coffee shop."

One of the ways Ryan asked Glenna to help was recruiting other volunteers.

"And that Sunday, my church had a joint service with our sister church, a local African-American congregation. There I talked with a friend who gave me several names of people who also might be interested in volunteering with the campaign. I called Ryan and passed on those names and phone numbers," Glenna said.

Ryan was impressed, and continued to ask Glenna to try increasingly difficult tasks. She didn't know it, but she was being "tested" to see if she had what it took to be a neighborhood team leader (NTL).

See, the story of the 2008 campaign is not some media creation and caricature like "Joe the Plumber," but those Americans that have done more than "win" the media lottery by having a chance encounter with a presidential candidate. (I put "win" in quotation marks because I have the feeling this isn't going to end well for that Joe, as media scrutiny can be a knife with two edges.) No, the story of 2008 is authentically about "Debrah the Neighborhood Team Leader" and "Glenna the Neighborhood Team Leader," and "Joe the Organizer," and "Jane the Change Crew Chief," and "Jose the Phone Banker" and "Jasmine the Canvasser." The story is that of so many Americans that didn't wait for the media to show up at their doorsteps but stepped out onto the battlefield and did the heavy lifting.

And there's a very special group among them: the more than 10,000 people - most, but not all, of them young - who right now aren't reading blogs or watching cable news because they're too busy organizing all those Debrahs and Glennas: the field organizers and deputies that were trained at Camp Obama and Fellows sessions, who have recruited those Neighborhood Team Leaders and others to carry out the action plan. They're engaged in hand-to-hand combat of sorts to identify or persuade every last vote and turn them out to the polls. Today, those of them that are in North Carolina are putting those votes on the scoreboards as the state's early voting began this morning and continues through November 1. Their counterparts in Georgia, Iowa, New Mexico and Ohio have been doing this for days now. The results are on the board already.

What will become of these organizers after Election Day? Having been in their shoes, I'm guessing that few of them have given it much thought. When you immerse yourself in immediate history, the "self," in traditional terms, ceases to exist, or is at least put on pause for a spell. It's the Cambellian hero's journey, and the luckiest of humans get to live it and then spend the rest of their lives contemplating what happened to change them so profoundly.

But their stories and memories and knowledge of how the job was done - not to mention the power of their skills, if they continue to harness them, in the future - hold the keys to understanding what is about to happen in America.

And so, Field Hands, I have an assignment for you in each of your local areas: You may already know some of these good people. They've probably organized you (or tried to). You certainly know where to find them. We don't yet know if their official campaign emails will still exist after November 4. But after the election we're going to need to be able to locate them and listen to their stories in order to properly document this historic moment. Your task: to assemble, for your area, their names, their permanent personal email addresses and their cell phone numbers, so that we can find them after the great leap forward and make sure their stories - a collective story - are told.

In most cases that means marching down to their offices, writing down the names of each person there with the title of "organizer" or "deputy" (usually their names are right on the wall in the office lobby, next to an envelope serving as a mail box), seeking them out, shaking their hands, thanking them for the work they're doing (you'll feel real good doing that), and asking how to find them after the election is over, as many of them are not from the areas where they're hard at work today. If they want to know why (a reasonable question), tell them about The Field, the Field Hands, and that your friend, the author (if they request it, give them my email and write down the URL for The Field for them), wants to interview them for a possible book about what they accomplished after the election is over and after the office they're working out of no longer exists. Respect their privacy. Don't post their personal info here or anywhere online. Send it privately to me at name, email and cell phone number. Remember that these folks are very, very busy right now. Assure them that we promise not to bug them before Election Day, but very much want to be able to find them and listen to their stories from the front lines when all is said and done.

The top story of 2008 doesn't end on November 4. It is - it must be - that this was the year that the Community Organizing Renaissance began.

We're going to move heaven and earth to make sure that it continues. Stay tuned for some important announcements about how, together, we're going to take up that challenge.

Update: Here's a DKos diary by TriangleNC reporting on the first morning of early voting in North Carolina:

1. Everybody is voting for Obama - Biden. We have had 350 voters from 9:30 to noon and absolutely every single one came out to support Obama.

2. We have been selling Obama Yard signs to lots of folks coming out of the polling station which provides an opportunity to get more exposure in the community, tell folks about yet another regional office we have set up and about our planned rally and march on Saturday. Oh - and signing up more volunteers.

Oh, so that's how to get a yard sign! By voting early!

Update II: In Indiana, the Obama campaign raises McCain's "Joe the Plummer" bid by anteing up Barney Smith on the airwaves:

Update III: Brett Marty, the photographer accompanying 538's Sean Quinn on the road, got this photo of the McCain campaign's phone bank in Columbus, Ohio, where three weeks before the election there was just one volunteer plus 39 dormant telephones:


Update IV: Sorry, I can't resist posting this, from another famous plumber named Joe, er... Josephine:


User login


About Al Giordano


Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.

RSS Feed