Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 2.26.2009


The Price and the Promise
Can Obama’s organizers change America?
Essay by Nancy Webber 

Editor’s Note: Nancy Webber has been a political activist and idealist for at least 40 years. She left her life in Eugene for most of 2008 to organize block-by-block support for Barack Obama in California, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. She was a major player in the powerful Oregon campaign. Back home after the emotional inauguration and after President Obama’s first month in office, Webber writes an essay on what’s next for the organization.

“Let us in! Let us in!” I shouted, along with more than 30,000 people packed from Union Station to 1st and Louisiana in Washington, D.C. We stood in a crowd at the “purple gate” ready to enter the Capitol grounds on the day of the Obama inauguration. In this crowd were Obama field organizers who had spent a year or more working on the campaign. 

Photo: Jack Liu

Regional Field Organizer Courtney Hight, who was stationed in Eugene during the Oregon primary, was in the 3rd Street tunnel, which is part of Interstate 395 and runs under the National Mall. On January 20, it was also known as “the Purple Tunnel of Doom.” The tunnel was so packed that a woman fainted standing up. Two rescue vehicles started into the tunnel from opposite directions trying to reach her. Courtney is no more than 5’2” and could see nothing but the back of the person in front of her. As the vehicles tried to move forward, she and her fellow tunnelers were shouting, “Let us out! Let us out!”

Despite arriving early and standing for hours without moving more than a few feet toward the gate, it became clear that we weren’t going to get in. Another cry went up, “Purple! Purple!” because the ticket-holders wanted the Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Capitol police, who were in charge of security at the gate, to know that we had valid tickets and a right to be there. 

Courtney and I spent most of 2008 working on the Obama campaign. Her journey began in New Hampshire as a field organizer. I joined the campaign during the California primary. We met during the Oregon primary in Eugene. Twenty-five years separate us in age, and our views of organizing are shaped by the generations to which we each belong. I have learned from the young Obama field organizers, whom I refer to as “my kids,” that it’s never enough to protest for your rights. You have to fight for them, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood. We weren’t organized well enough in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s to do that consistently. My “kids” have taken field operations to a new level. Courtney somehow got out of the tunnel and ran for the gate. I was slammed up against the metal fencing that surrounded the Capitol about 50 feet from the entrance. Within moments of the gate closure, she got in. I did not.

As the gate closed, a black man near me shrugged and a tear ran down his cheek. I had spoken to him earlier to ask if he wasn’t cold. He was dressed in suit and tie, but despite the sub-freezing temperature, he wore neither a coat nor a hat. He told me that if Barack Obama could stand hatless in the cold, then he could too. Was he a contributor? A volunteer? A friend? I don’t know, but his feelings of disappointment were shared by all of us.

He turned to go, but there was nowhere to go. The last ones in the crowd had to leave first in order to allow those of us near the front enough room to move. The crowd thinned, but many people chose not to leave. It was as if every field organizer there asked the same question: “What’s next?” After a big event during the campaign, that was the question: “What’s next?” 

Without anger or blame, the organizers turned to each other, formed a huddle, and invited others to join them as they pulled out iPhones and Blackberries to listen to President Obama’s speech. 

At the end of his speech the answer came. He called on us to accept the duties of citizenship and find meaning in something greater than ourselves.

The newly sworn-in president said: “For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job, which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.”

The words were eloquent, but it was his actions of the previous day that will define what he is asking all of us to do. More than 1 million people, including Michelle and Barack Obama were volunteering on 13,000 projects across the nation to paint schools, plant trees, build houses and clean up creeks, streams and bayous.

In 1994 Congress enacted a bill declaring Martin Luther King Day as a national day of service. Although presidents since then have mentioned it, none has so actively recruited Americans to serve their community and their country as Barack Obama. In Oregon, more than 200 events were held — clothing drives, construction at Habitat for Humanity sites, collections for the Oregon Food Bank and many more. 

The organizer of the National Day of Service, Buffy Wicks, was the state field organizer in southern California during the primary and in Missouri during the general election for the Obama campaign. Those assignments were among the most difficult of the campaign. Her leadership and the events that have continued since the inauguration are clear indicators that community service will be a major component of the Obama administration. 

During the recent service events surrounding the NBA All-Star game, for example, a public service announcement featuring President Obama encouraged all Americans to “lace ’em up” and get involved in their communities. 

No one should be surprised. Barack Obama began his political career as a community organizer. He believes in the value of community service as a tool to break down barriers, to build trust among people and to find common purpose.

Obama’s faith in organizing from the bottom up coupled with his campaign’s ingenious use of technology has made his the most powerful political organization in history. Obama for America, which has morphed into Organizing for America, gathered more than 13 million email addresses. The new entity, still headed by Obama’s campaign manager David Plouffe, has the capability of reaching millions of people via text messaging as well. 

The first test of Plouffe’s reach occurred when delegates to the Democratic Convention in Denver were asked to call one friend each from Mile High Stadium. More than 85,000 calls jammed the nearby cell towers. We were also asked to text a congratulatory message to Barack Obama. The messages were relayed to the jumbotrons in the stadium and broadcast worldwide. When the power of this online network is loosed on Congress, many legislators are likely to find it overwhelming, perhaps even more powerful than the K Street lobby.

Some have called these organizing twins, community service and social networking, a permanent campaign. There are more than 5,000 trained field organizers throughout the country who are ready and willing to support President Obama. Some will be educating the public about specific legislation and rallying support for it through Organizing for America, now a permanent arm of the Democratic Party. 

Others will be organizing community service projects through Both websites look very much like the Obama for America website did during the campaign. A volunteer can sign up for a project, create one or blog about the experience after the fact. 

“It’s not about Barack changing this country,” says Eugene volunteer field organizer Julie Marandin. “It’s about each one of us reaching out to our friends and neighbors and becoming more involved in our community.”

In the week leading up to passage of the stimulus plan, several thousand OFA house meetings took place around the country. Attendees were briefed on the package by watching a video with the new DNC Chairman and governor of Virginia, Tim Keane. They were asked to persuade friends and neighbors and then to mobilize their social networks to let Congress know that they supported the President’s position.

It is this network that makes Obama’s search for common ground possible. The power behind this presidency is the millions of supporters who are networked, fired up and ready to go.

 “What’s next?” In small huddles on a very cold day, listening over cell phones, we heard the answer:

“What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price and the promise of citizenship.”