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Organizing for America: Looking Back, Marching Ahead

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Twelve months ago Organizing for America was little more than a big idea. Yes, we had the Obama for America email list – an incredible tool – but what we wanted to do was unprecedented. For the first time ever, we set out to transform a political campaign into a long-term grassroots effort driven by issues and a commitment to organizing at the local level.

Back then – before the Recovery Act fight, the health care battle and the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor – we liked to say we were building the plane as we flew it. And we were. We had thousands of volunteers, but not one staffer in the states. Today, we have permanent offices in all 50 states and active volunteers in every congressional district. We’ve built a lasting infrastructure that’s already translated into success in legislative organizing, and we’re eager to train our fire on the elections later this year.

Like most organizers, I’m usually focused on the next step, the next campaign; but in this first week of a new decade, I think it’s the perfect time to remember who OFA is and where we came from.

Immediately following the 2008 election, several of President Obama’s senior organizers spent six weeks talking to supporters and mining the data of a massive online survey to understand what volunteers wanted to see the 2008 campaign become. We held one-on-one conference calls, hosted a massive in-person conference of over 300 volunteer leaders and carefully analyzed survey data gathered at thousands of house parties around the country.

Our volunteers were incredibly clear: their number one goal was to organize around the policies President Obama articulated during the campaign. So, since its inception, OFA’s role has been to engage our volunteers to build support for the President’s policy agenda. A volunteer suggested the name Organizing for America and volunteers urged OFA to maintain the 2008 campaign model, based on neighborhood team leaders. Now called “community organizers,” these volunteers dedicate 20 to 30 hours a week to OFA and are the defining characteristic of our organizational structure.

Last month we held more than 200 volunteer trainings across the country. I traveled to four events in Colorado: two in Denver, one in Fort Collins and another in Golden. At every stop I met volunteers who saw the need for change in their communities and chose to organize with us to make it happen. I met volunteers who took ownership over their turf and relished their seat at the leadership table with OFA staff. The people at our trainings are the folks you rarely read about in the news or see on TV, but they’re the ones building support for the President’s agenda through old fashioned shoe leather and meticulous reporting. They know change won’t come easy and they know it isn’t always pretty, but they’re doing it anyway – neighbor by neighbor and block by block.

Every OFA staffer follows that same methodical, focused, disciplined approach. We track how many one-on-one meetings staff have with volunteers to make sure we’re building strong relationships on the ground. States submit weekly “hearing on the ground” reports to keep OFA headquarters’ staff connected to local volunteer leaders. And an OFA state staffer’s very first job was to conduct a state wide “Listening Tour,” to which every 2008 Obama campaign volunteer – and anyone who wanted to get involved – was invited to talk about the issues and provide insight into their states’ organizing plan. Greg Schultz started as OFA’s Ohio State Director in March 2009. He and field director Michelle Domke hosted 32 Listening Tour sessions across the state: in Appalachian towns, the suburbs of Cincinnati and inner-city neighborhoods of Cleveland. All told, OFA held more than 400 Listening Tours and heard from tens of thousands of volunteers. Many of the people who attended those early Listening Tour meetings became our core “community organizers.”

That’s a snapshot of our offline organizing infrastructure. But new people are joining our online community everyday – we just got our 3 millionth follower on Twitter, for example, and we have 7 million friends on Facebook (all 50 state OFA organizations also have their own Twitter and Facebook accounts, making it even easier for supporters to talk to one another about local events and issues). The online community from the campaign still exists, with all the same tools that allowed the campaign to empower volunteers to set up local events and reach out to voters. But now volunteers can execute peer-to-peer organizing through our Neighbor-to-Neighbor technology to advocate for the policy priorities we fought for during the election and push for local candidates, local laws and local service projects. We also have tools, like a Letter to the Editor tool and personal blogs, that give individuals an opportunity to communicate their ideas to the public. We upped the capacity of our online tools in 2009 and we’ll only get better in 2010 at using technology in new ways to empower our volunteers to take action in their own communities.

OFA kicked off our campaign for health reform last June. More than 2.5 million people volunteered through our campaign by signing a statement of support, making a phone call, attending an event, visiting a congressional office or going door to door. Our volunteers organized 25,000 events in all 50 states in every Congressional District. Since August, our network has generated more than 1 million calls to Congress in support of reform. And in one week last August, when tea party protesters were burning Members of Congress in effigy, “death panel” rumors dominated water-cooler talk and Washington pundits were ready to pen health reform’s obituary, 65,000 OFA supporters visited their local Congressional offices – demonstrating massive public support for reform and keeping the fight alive for another day. Now we’re closer than ever to extending coverage to more than 30 million Americans: the greatest expansion of health care since Medicare. It’s something seven presidents have tried and failed to do; heck, no one else has been able to get a full floor vote, let alone final legislation out of the House and Senate!

On a campaign, you measure success by winning elections, and by doing it in a way that leaves more behind than when you started. The metrics of success are clear (win more votes) and the end date (Election Day) is certain. Legislative organizing isn’t so clear cut. You measure success by winning on issues, but “winning” is a little messier and more ambiguous than tallying election night results; and as we’ve seen in the health care debate, the finish line is almost never a sure thing.

OFA volunteers have been central in the effort to building public and legislative support for President Obama’s agenda – easily the most ambitious policy agenda in decades. From the Recovery Act, to the President’s 2010 budget, health reform and energy and climate legislation, volunteers have shaped and guided OFA’s efforts every step of the way.

The fact is, every policy President Obama pursued in 2009 has either been passed by Congress, or is on the cusp of becoming reality. Did we get every single thing we wanted? Nope. The Rolling Stones were right – you can’t always get what you want. But I am incredibly proud of what OFA accomplished in 2009 thanks to the leadership of our volunteers and our incredibly talented staff of organizers. The millions who continued the fight for change – either by organizing with OFA or another organization – have a unique story to tell about 2009. It’s a story of incredible legislative successes, unparalleled cooperation between groups, unheard of activism in an off-off election year, and continued technological advancement in grassroots organizing.

OFA has taken our lumps and we know we’ve still got a lot to learn – but we’ve come a long way from a big idea. We’re committed to strengthening our infrastructure and fine-tuning our strategy and tactics, which is why every OFA organizer is in the process of conducting one-on-one meetings with their volunteer leaders to evaluate 2009. Right now, we are surveying our supporters about their top priorities in 2010. And OFA state directors are planning another series of listening tours in the next few months.

Six days into 2010, I can tell you President Obama’s grassroots army is enormously proud of what we’ve accomplished. A year ago, the cynics didn’t think we’d make it – just as many pundits prematurely panned Barack Obama’s candidacy. With discipline and diligence, we’ve built a strong, volunteer-based infrastructure. We’ve kept working, kept the conversation going, and expanded our base of support, all the while mounting victory after victory. With a win on health reform in our sites, new legislative battles looming and important elections ahead, I can’t wait to see what we accomplish in the New Year.

Jeremy Bird, the National Deputy Director of Organizing for America, is a long-time organizer in Democratic politics, legislative campaigns and advocacy work.