Obama Volunteers Share the Power of Personal Stories

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 26, 2008

ST. LOUIS -- Sen. Barack Obama's newest recruits gathered in a modern picture gallery to practice the political art of electing a president. For three days, they focused on the low-tech skills of registering voters and identifying community leaders to vouch for the Illinois Democrat and carry his message.

Along the way, they were encouraged to perfect their stories, a short narrative suitable for doorsteps and living rooms about where they came from and why they care about Obama. Their stories would resonate with voters, they were told, and enough personal connections could carry a candidate to the White House.

That is how Missouri college student Matthew Aiken came to say that the murder of his cousin, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, jolted him into political action. It is why James Wallace told of working his heart out for Robert F. Kennedy and, 40 years later, seeing Obama as a prophecy fulfilled.

It is what prompted Illinois student Sean Sanders to stand in front of 110 people and choke back tears as he said the shuttering of steel mills, the rise in teenage pregnancies and the death of a friend who drove drunk made him realize, "I can't run away anymore. I need to come back."

Such scenes played out in 23 formal training sessions in 17 states last month as the Obama campaign labored to bring a blend of rigor, passion and purpose to the unglamorous work of field organizing. More than 3,000 volunteers pledged to spend at least six 30-hour weeks strengthening the grass-roots network.

More than 10,000 people applied for slots as "Obama Organizing Fellows" and about 5,500 were interviewed by telephone, answering such questions as "Why Barack?"

This first batch is now finishing a round of voter-registration drives and a series of one-on-one recruiting efforts. Dozens of the Missouri fellows will be offered full-time jobs, paid to spread the word.

"It's one thing building on the next," said Buffy Wicks, Obama's state director here.

When 97 volunteers arrived in St. Louis, Wicks told them her story: a rural California upbringing followed by political activism that intensified when her closest friend was diagnosed with HIV and had no health insurance.

"When he decided to run," she said of Obama, "I said I have to do this because it's for people like Todd.

"It's going to be very hard," Wicks told the volunteers. "It's a lot of long days, a lot of unhealthy days . . . but it's worth it, because we're going to change the country. This for many of you is going to be a transformative experience in your lives. Are you ready for that?"

Wicks and Missouri field director Peachy Myers introduced the group to an 86-page training manual filled with lessons drawn from Obama's experiences as a community organizer and the first 16 months of the presidential campaign. In a national conference call to the volunteers, Obama recalled that when he called his first meeting on Chicago's South Side in the 1980s, no one showed.

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