November 4 was the happiest day life, so far. I imagine Inauguration Day may feel at least as good. 21 months ago, I felt like Cassandra in The Aeneid, whose prophesies fell on deaf ears. "Barack Obama will be President. Mark my words," I said, greeted often by laughs, scoffs and choruses of "Dream on!" Volunteering for Barack Obama's presidential campaign often seemed like an exercise in futility, when he was behind Hillary 20-30 points, or after Palin's RNC acceptance speech. But underneath the static of my doubt, a steady faith hummed - its tune seemed to say, "Destiny will not be thwarted."
That destiny revealed itself to me, when, after I saw his 2004 speech at the DNC, I began reading Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father. I knew instantly, from his eloquent, soul-searching tone, that here was a man for whom I'd volunteer, when he ran for President - there was no question of "if."
The day Senator Obama declared his candidacy, I created my profile on his website and started my group, then called, "Multi-Culti Obama Fans," for people from hybrid families - as I was married to a black man and am Italian, Mexican and Irish, myself
A few months into the campaign, I received an email invitation from Obama headquarters to a Los Angeles Field Team meeting at a church in Los Angeles' Koreatown. The day arrived and I turned up uncharacteristically early. As I watched the diverse assortment of volunteers trickle in, I had the heady sensation that I might have stumbled onto a page of history. The Field Director, Buffy Wicks, told us that, of 170 people invited, 30 had shown up. "You're the campaign's Los Angeles field team. Congratulations!"
I found three people who lived close to me and suggested we join forces, naming ourselves "Obamawood," since Hollywood is the most known area in our district. Aside from me, there was Hope, a half-white, half-Chicana public school dance teacher; Shakeh, the African-American former principal of Compton High; and Hayne, a Korean-American public defender. We got to work organizing events in Hollywood and neighboring Los Feliz. Then, in July of '07, the campaign invited us to Camp Obama, where we met Obamawood's new members, Judi, a Canadian ex-pat activist and Reggie, an African-American, actor, writer, director from Chicago. We learned the fundamentals of community organizing from Harvard Kennedy School of Government professor, the profound, hilarious and mission-driven Marshall Ganz - whose experience on the Mississippi Freedom Rides, and with Cesar Chavez' Field Workers' movement, inspired our awe.
Marshall, as we'd come to call him, helped us see how tying one's personal narrative to the national narrative moved others to join the collective. We also learned how to calculate the daunting number of volunteers we would need to reach the even-greater number of voters in our district. More daunting still, Obamawood had elected me its first official leader.
That first month after Camp Obama, some members of the group felt we had performed more fluidly before the campaign "forced" us into its infrastructure. Due to the newly adopted, congressional-district-based structure, our jurisdiction had expanded to include several additional neighborhoods. Furthermore, we original members of Obamawood had to integrate new members - who had been volunteering outside of our auspices - into our evolving identity.
Naturally, each member had his or her own strengths and weaknesses. As an actress, I had confidence in my ability to motivate a crowd. On the other hand, I had to learn that I could not please every one and that sometimes, in allowing a member to fall away, I helped the majority surge forward. Hope's strength was organization. Judi's strength was garnering resources. Shakeh made sure every one had an equal voice. Reggie exemplified flexibility and willingness.
Obamawood coalesced relatively quickly. We trained a steady stream of incoming volunteers; raised money at celebrity-attended fundraisers; and created visibility at tabling events and debate watching parties. We held our first canvass, which took place in four local sub-communities, as I'd recruited walkers who spoke English, Spanish, Korean and Armenian, respectively, and designated their routes according to ethnic demographics. We joked that our fifth language was "Former Republican Marine," since one of our walkers was a young Vet. Chicago headquarters sent a camerawoman to shoot our canvass - clips of which aired on the campaign website and, later, at the DNC.
Another morale-boosting moment arose when we voted as a group on what questions to submit to the CNN/YouTube debates and uploaded video of me asking them. Despite Anderson Cooper's best efforts to elicit clarity, the candidates did everything to avoid the question: "Will your healthcare plan cover undocumented workers?"
Although Barack Obama lost the California primary, he won in our district at 61.4%. In the whole state, only a Bay Area group tied that number. Within a year of our first meeting, Obamawood had grown from 4 to over 1,000 members and had, as of Election Day, nearly 2,000 members.
After 8 months of considering T.V. and film residuals my campaign salary, I stepped down as leader, to act in a couple of plays and a film. Hope, who succeeded me, went on to a salaried position, organizing volunteers to travel to the swing state of Nevada. A third leader, Mike Ludwig, then stepped up to take Obamawood all the way home.
Although I returned to acting, I have stayed heavily engaged in the campaign. By the time I made it to Obama's acceptance speech at the convention in Denver, I knew my life's purpose had expanded from just acting to a marriage of art and politics. My life is just one among hundreds of thousands this campaign has transformed. Barack's victory on Tuesday was ours. And it's only the beginning.
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