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Obama Aims to Use Campaign Energy For Civic Work

Across U.S., People Answer Call to Serve

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 20, 2009; Page A14

PADUCAH, Ky., Jan. 19 -- Linda Dungey, managing with a cane after two strokes, spent hours over the past couple of weeks recruiting volunteers for a charity drive that culminated Monday afternoon amid a sea of canned food at the Carson Park Fairgrounds.

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Dungey was pleased enough with the results of her efforts and the dozens who helped out -- thousands of cans were donated and were on their way to area food banks; a book drive helped raise money for charity; and used cellphones were collected for victims of domestic abuse.

But on a day devoted to community service, the bounty was just part of her story. The other part is why she did it: because Barack Obama asked.

When Dungey's telephone rang in early January, it was Anna Humphrey, a former Obama campaign worker, calling to say that the president-elect was mobilizing his supporters to do good deeds on inauguration weekend.

"I didn't have much time," said Dungey, 60, a longtime social services worker who helped organize Paducah for Obama during his White House run. "And we just did it. That's something we learned from Barack Obama."

As Obama enters the White House, riding a victory fueled by an unprecedented field operation, he is aiming to convert campaign energy into civic engagement. He wants to create a force that will fortify his administration's policies and, as he likes to put it, rebuild the nation.

"Government can only do so much," Obama said Monday as he pitched in at a D.C. high school. "If we're waiting for someone else to do something, it never gets done."

In recent weeks, Obama organizers have contacted hundreds of organizations around the country -- "from MoveOn.org on the left to Focus on the Family on the right," said project director Buffy Wicks -- to ask them to support a service project on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Millions of people on Obama's campaign e-mail list were urged to sign up.

The goal, Wicks said, was to "ignite a new sense of service to the country. It's definitely going to be a priority of President Obama and his administration to ask more from people, and to get people to contribute to their community in a nonpolitical way."

Obama's inauguration also coincides with the creation of Organizing for America, a successor to his Obama for America campaign structure. In a video link e-mailed Saturday in support of what staff members refer to as "OFA 2.0," Obama told supporters that "the movement you've built is too important to stop growing now."

For Dungey, the service projects were another stop on an unexpected journey that began when Obama emerged as a serious candidate. In early 2008, she started an Obama group in conservative Paducah, even though the Illinois Democrat had little shot at winning the primary or the general election here.

"The next thing I knew, I was deeper and deeper involved," said Dungey, whose informal circle grew to include 150 regulars from miles around. "I was thinking that . . . even as a candidate, he may not win, but there's a moment in history where I have an opportunity to make a difference."

New friends and old credit Dungey with stitching together an Obama organization in hostile territory. She saw it as an overdue payment on the political activism she missed in the 1960s, when she was a teenage mother "a little bit too focused on some other things."

"So now," Dungey said, "I feel I've made my contribution to the civil rights movement."

Obama's message of service became a preachable moment in area churches over the weekend as well.

The Rev. Raynarldo Henderson cautioned his flock about complacency at the Washington Street Missionary Baptist Church, a congregation formed in the antebellum tumult of 1855, when Kentucky lay on the nation's racial fault line.

Obama is "challenging us to reach back and help somebody, to volunteer at soup kitchens. We've heard the message before, but we haven't heard it with so much force and excitement," Henderson said. "I think Obama's election has encouraged people to come to the table who haven't been talking before. It's bringing black people and white people."

At a church gathering Sunday night, Cecil Barnette recalled how his 13-year-old granddaughter wept at the sight of Obama becoming the first black man to win the White House on election night and how it made him realize that he needs to do more.

"I said to her, 'The job starts today. You can't do just what you've been doing. The bar's been raised. You need to jump a little higher,' " Barnette, 59, recounted, adding that he feels the message himself.

"It says to me, 'Where I am, I can't stay here. Just because there's a black president, it isn't all over. I can't be complacent. I have to raise my level of participation.' "

Barnette had never worked for a political campaign, not the way he worked for Obama's. He said that during the ferment of the 1960s, he was "all about peace and love, getting high." Now he believes the reach of Obama's followers must "go from the dog catcher all the way to the White House."

Dungey likes what she sees, and feels a sense of purpose in what she has done, but she is cautious. She does not believe Obama's moment or his movement are self-sustaining in places such as Paducah. The way she sees it, the president and his followers may have elected a president, but they have much work to do.

"It will be vested in Obama's people," Dungey said. "If they continue to rally the nation, people will respond."


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