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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.

"Get ready to have a lot of face-to-face meetings with people who may say yes as well as those who may say no to your ask for commitment," the manual states. "The strength of our campaign has been engaging people that have never been politically active. It is not easy!"

"This summer is all about building capacity," Wicks told the group, explaining that the volunteers would fan out in teams to identify community leaders -- some traditional, some neophytes -- who would "build miniature campaigns in their own neighborhoods."

For some people, that might sound overly like Kumbaya, Wicks said, "but for us it's about winning."

"So don't forget that part," she continued. "It's about the numbers. We need the right numbers to win. Data and management are a huge part of this."

Obama organizers are conditioned to enter results each day into the campaign's vast database. That includes voters registered and volunteers recruited and the number of one-on-one sessions and house meetings. The campaign also constantly asks what is working and what isn't.

If several people on the ground mention the same problem, the campaign can adjust. Similarly, if one organizer has a good idea, the campaign can quickly pass it along, as happened recently when someone started canvassing at gas stations and discovered that drivers irate about rising prices were motivated to register.

"Now, I'm really jealous of you, because you're going to have a lot of fun. You're going to eat cold pizza, and you're going to drink warm beer," Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a fervent Obama supporter, told the volunteers. "But have fun. That's what he wants you to do. He wants you to learn how to reach out, organize people for power -- the good kind of power, the kind that comes from the bottom up."

McCaskill telegraphed the campaign's central focus: introducing Obama to voters who remain skeptical, and reassuring them.

"The message you've got to send, more than any other message, is that Barack Obama is just like us," McCaskill said.

"If you look at what he has done and how he has done it, anybody who thinks he's out of touch has not paid attention to who he is as a man."

The volunteers now scattered across Missouri are an eclectic bunch. Some have worked in campaigns; most have not. Volunteers in their 20s seem to outnumber all others, but more than a few are in their 40s, 50s and 60s.

One woman described herself as an unemployed single parent from Kansas City looking for bigger solutions. Another said she grew up in the 1960s, granddaughter of a suffragette. A law student raised in a small Missouri town said she was drawn to action after seeing foreign revulsion toward U.S. policy.

Linda Carey, whose children are grown, is a first-timer.

"I've never done anything like this," explained Carey, who said the aftermath of 9/11 and the treatment of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo caused her to take notice. "You go to his Web site, and he immediately invites you to become involved. He invites you to tell your story, and he trusts you to be okay."

The campaign sent the recruits to register voters the first afternoon they were on duty. To emphasize the business at hand, the organizers also set a goal of 10 registrations and instructed them to return to headquarters for a debriefing.

Nothing was easy, Carey and her teammates learned as they set out for unfamiliar territory on a hot afternoon. After an hour walking a gentrifying neighborhood with its mix of rehabbed and shuttered rowhouses, Malcolm Cotton said his meager total felt like a win. He called out, "I've got two already!"

"I've got one!" Elizabeth Sharpe-Taylor called back.

"I haven't even gotten any doors open yet," said Matthew Aiken, gloomily. "Look at that one -- it doesn't even have doors."

Walking the next block, Sharpe-Taylor stopped a pair of boys coming the other way.

"How old are you?" she asked.

"Fourteen," one boy answered.

"How old are you," she asked the other one.

"Fourteen," he said.

Undeterred, she went on, "Are your parents registered to vote?"

"Yeah."

"Are you going to persuade them to vote for Barack?"

"Yeah."

"High-five."

The teams all met their goals, registering 297 voters and providing the names of 126 prospective volunteers.

As her group headed toward the temporary St. Louis office to review the experience, California biologist Sarah Warnock spoke of feeling "more optimistic." She never expected Obama to win the nomination, but what she saw and heard seemed to validate her decision to leave behind her husband and school-age children for six weeks.

"I think it's important for them to see me doing everything I can for a campaign, especially this campaign," Warnock said. "If everybody gets committed and does it, it really could work."

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