Inside the Obama campaign, almost without anyone noticing, an insurgent generation of organizers has built the Progressive movement a brand new and potentially durable people’s organization, in a dozen states, rooted at the neighborhood level.
The "New Organizers" have succeeded in building what many netroots-oriented campaigners have been dreaming about for a decade. Other recent attempts have failed because they were either so "top-down" and/or poorly-managed that they choked volunteer leadership and enthusiasm; or because they were so dogmatically fixated on pure peer-to-peer or "bottom-up" organizing that they rejected basic management, accountability and planning. The architects and builders of the Obama field campaign, on the other hand, have undogmatically mixed timeless traditions and discipline of good organizing with new technologies of decentralization and self-organization.
Win or lose, "The New Organizers" have already transformed thousands of communities—and revolutionized the way organizing itself will be understood and practiced for at least the next generation. Obama must continue to feed and lead the organization they have built—either as president or in opposition. If he doesn’t, then the broader progressive movement needs to figure out how to pick this up, keep it going and spread it to all 50 states. For any of that to happen, the incredible organizing that has taken place this year inside Obama’s campaign—and also here and there in Clinton’s—needs to be thoroughly understood and celebrated. Toward that end, here are glimpses from several days of observations and interviews in Central and Southwest Ohio. This article focuses on the field program’s innovative "neighborhood team" structure and the philosophy of volunteer management underlying it that is best summarized by the field campaign’s ubiquitous motto: "Respect. Empower. Include."
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).
After Glenna had proven her reliability and effectiveness, Ryan asked her for another special one-on-one meeting where he invited her to formally agree to become an NTL. He spelled out all of an NTL’s responsibilities before allowing her to accept it and even gave her a binder spelling it all out in writing: She would work with him to recruit other team members such as coordinators for canvassing, phone banking and data management. Her team would be responsible for connecting with all of the Democratic and undecided voters within their "turf." Other volunteers who stepped forward in her area would not be managed by campaign staff, but by Glenna’s team. As team leader, Glenna would report results to Ryan a couple times per week and would be held accountable for meeting specific goals by certain deadlines.
In 2004, it was unusual for volunteers to have persistent roles and responsibilities—both at the Kerry campaign and the independent field operation Americans Coming Together. That is the norm for electoral organizing campaigns, and perhaps organizing in general these days. In contrast, the Obama neighborhood team members are organizers themselves, sometimes working more or less as staff alongside the young FOs.