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Zack Exley

Zack Exley

Posted: August 29, 2007 08:25 AM

Stories and Numbers - a Closer Look at Camp Obama


This is the second in a series investigating the evolution of field organizing in the 2008 presidential campaign.

No one who attends a "Camp Obama" training weekend can deny that something truly beautiful is taking place inside the Barack Obama campaign. But beauty does not win votes. Is the campaign's innovative, intellectual and emotional training program leading toward electoral power, or just another screaming disappointment for the grassroots?

Friday night in Atlanta, about 200 Obama supporters from around the South gathered at the Morris Brown College student center to kick off an intensive three-day training program called "Camp Obama". Everyone sitting in the chairs had been interviewed and selected for their willingness to commit serious time to the campaign, leadership skills and past experience.

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Most of the six regional Camp Obamas held so far have been lead by Harvard Professor Marshall Ganz. Coincidentally, Ganz began his political career 43 years earlier at a seminary right across the street from the weekend's training. He and fellow Harvard undergraduates had driven from Boston to join Freedom Summer. Expecting to find a late night strategy session in progress when they arrived, they instead walked in on a raucous "preach off" among young civil rights activists. And so began a lifelong career in applying story telling, emotion and faith to politics.

From the civil rights movement, Ganz joined the United Farm Workers as an organizer in his home state of California. He was there when Robert Kennedy was shot, organizing immigrants who could not vote to turn out citizens who could. Ganz, who's father was a Rabbi and army chaplain in occupied Germany and whose language is often laced with Bible allusions, says that for America it's been 40 years in the desert since that time. But he says he's beginning to see an out.

Almost every sentence Ganz speaks is at the same time intensely intellectual and intensely emotional. His introductory session Friday night was interspersed with the latest on brain research, experiences growing up in post-Holocaust Germany, Steven Jay Gould's theory of time and the question of where hope comes from.

"Where does your hope come from?" he asked the audience.

After several adequate answers, he finally got one he especially liked: "Faith."

"Exactly. That's why faith movements and social movements have so much to do with each other," Ganz expanded.

But one final audience member gave him the answer that perfectly set up the rest of the weekend: "I get hope from stories. Obama's story that he told at the convention--that gave me hope."

"Yes! 'To inspire'--it literally means to breathe life into each other," Ganz replied, "And we can do that by telling our stories to each other. That's what Barack did for us when he told his story. And that's what we can do for others when we tell them our stories."

The next morning, Ganz followed up by playing a video of the first seven minutes of Obama's famous 2004 speech, and then dissected those seven minutes into three parts. First came the "story of self," Obama's challenges and choices. Second came the "story of us," when Obama pivoted to connect his own story with the challenges and choices that now face Americans as a people. Finally there was the "story of now," where Obama laid out what we have do to make the world a better place right now.

The purpose of this weekend training, Ganz explained, was not only to learn skills, form teams and get organized--but much more importantly, to learn how to tell our own stories, how to "put into words why you're called, and why we've been called, to change the way the world works."

Those "stories of self" and "stories of us" were to be the most powerful tool for these campaigners--along with the ability to teach others how to tell their stories--back home recruiting and motivating volunteers and building relationships.

After a little more instruction and modeling of story telling, the large group was split into a few dozen smaller groups by Congressional district for participants to have a chance to work on their own stories. The goal of this period was for participants to emerge being able to tell their "story of self" in less than two minutes, just as Barack Obama had in his 2004 convention speech.

Each group had a facilitator who had received additional training before the weekend on this method. There were also materials and worksheets in every attendee's course book to give structure and flow to the story telling process.

I followed one group out of the main room into an echo filled corridor where they found some space to sit, and they were nice enough to let me join them.

Now, I want you to stop for a second and think about something here. If you've ever been in a big room full of ordinary campaign volunteers, then please pause right here and ask yourself: What did you see in that room? How did you think of those people? What did you assume about their skill levels, their intelligence, their depth of experience and wisdom? I like to think of myself as someone who has a very high opinion of any room full of grassroots leaders. But I wasn't prepared for anything like who the people in this room turned out to be when they began to tell their stories.

For just a few minutes, in that first group that I sat with, there was awkwardness. But our facilitator, Lawrence, got people right through it. Quickly, the stories started to come out, one after another. Here are a few out of the seven in my group:

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Ben grew up on a small Alabama farm in a family of 15 children. His father died when he was 10. And his family feared it would fall apart. But his mother was determined that not only would they stick together and keep the farm, but that also all of her children would go to college. The siblings pooled resources and, in the end, everyone graduated. Ben himself earned a BS in Chemical Engineering, a law degree and a PhD in public policy. In addition to making a living as a business consultant, he is now a pastor leading a Baptist church of 200.


Lavell grew poor up in a hard neighborhood of Queens, New York. His mother died of breast cancer when he was young, and he began to fall in with kids who were drinking and using drugs. Then one Sunday morning, while drinking with friends outside of a church, he was approached by the young pastor, who had heard from a neighbor that he had an interest in animals. The pastor invited him along to visit a friend who was a veterinarian. The visit gave Lavell a glimpse of a life that could be. The hope and the relationships he gained that day were enough to get him through to college and later into vet school (which is known for being harder to get into than medical school!) and now works as a successful veterinarian.

Tryshanda grew up poor in a very small Georgia town. She had no trouble succeeding in a failing school system, but then, in college, found herself far less prepared than the other students in the major she had chosen--which was, of course, astrophysics. As she struggled, two different professors tried to steer her towards a major in education. One told her, "This isn't a field for black girls." Another told her he was sure she was being set up by affirmative action for failure, though actually her scholarship had been awarded for academic performance only. Despite that discouragement, she stuck with it and now does some crazy high tech job for NASA that I couldn't understand when she explained it.

The rest of the stories in the group were just as striking: a white woman who adopted three older mixed race children, all traumatized by years of bouncing around the foster care system; a young woman who had grown up between war torn Croatia and suburban Colorado; another young woman just getting out of college who had struggled with "the culture"--drugs and other self destructive behavior--before getting her life together; a 60 year old life-long Republican, follower of Ronald Reagan, and self-described "overcomer" whose youth was shaped by his family's long and difficult struggle with multiple illnesses; and, finally, our facilitator whose parents converted to a mainstream American Islamic sect and grew up negotiating life as a black Muslim while his father's work as a doctor took his family through a half a dozen states.

After hearing their stories, I certainly was looking at this group differently than when we first sat down. And they were looking at each other differently, with a vastly expanded vision of what they were capable of accomplishing together when they went home and got to work for the campaign.

Back in the larger group, to wrap up that exercise, five volunteers from different teams came up to the front of the room to demonstrate. If I hadn't sat with my group, and seen those stories, I would have thought the trainers had cherry picked these stories for their inspirational power. But, as it turned out, they were just typical.

In just that first morning session, this group of "ordinary campaign volunteers" had been revealed to actually be a group of insanely talented, wise and courageous leaders. Now that that had been established, the real work could start.

This potential-revealing process of story telling, which Ganz has now snuck into his second presidential campaign, is a tradition that, according to him, has been a key tactic of every social movement from the American revolution to the Great Awakenings to the Civil Rights Movement.

I've worked with a lot of big personalities who instantly come across as capable, important leaders. You feel it as soon as they walk in to the room. It's in the way they speak, carry themselves and even dress--and usually in the fact that everyone around them behaves as though they're important leaders if only because they've been told it's so. For those "big personalities," no special process is needed to reveal their potential. (In fact, a few might benefit from some process to reassess it!)

But the people who attended Camp Obama were not those kinds of personalities. It's not that they were disempowered--not one bit. It's just that they were not big-headed or self-absorbed. In fact, nearly every trainee's "story of self" described a life lived humbly and totally in the service of others.

Typically, one consequence of the hidden nature of this group potential is under-performance. In the field in 2004, on the Kerry campaign, oceans of volunteers show up to canvass and phone bank at local campaign offices all over the country. When those hundreds of thousands of people walked into campaign offices in Ohio, Florida, Michigan and a dozen other swing states, they appeared to campaign staff--and to each other--as the Camp Obama group first appeared: as "ordinary volunteers." Because that's how organizers saw them, and how they saw each other, that is how they functioned.

The story telling exercises are the foundation of the model being used at Camp Obama. But they are not the end goal of the training. After a day of story telling, then came the nuts and bolts: training and exercises on how to function as an effective team, skills training for volunteer recruitment and voter contact and review and explanations of field plans for Georgia, South Carolina and the rest of the South.

The teams, which were organized by Congressional districts, were guided through a process of setting goals and making a plan to achieve them. While still at the training, thirteen different teams scheduled thirteen different volunteer recruitment meetings back in the districts--and picked up their cell phones to get 284 commitments to attend from friends and neighbors. Getting those immediate results fired everyone up and the closing ceremony, in which every participant received a certificate, was incredibly high-energy and emotional.

This handful of Camp Obama teams are supposed to be just the beginning of the Obama organization in their Congressional districts. The goal they are carrying back with them is to establish parallel teams of five to eight people to be responsible for cities and neighborhoods all the way down to the precinct level.

There's no question that Camp Obama is a beautiful thing. There's no question that the leaders who attend gain a tremendous amount. There's no question that communities benefit from the leadership development that takes place at Camp Obama.

But is there time for this meticulous organization-building to make any kind of difference in the vote in the "Super Duper Tuesday" February 5 nationwide primary? That all depends on the actual numbers of high-functioning teams that Camp Obama graduates are able to create in their districts, and the actual numbers of voters those teams are able to persuade and get to the polls.

Its easier to see this kind of model working in relatively small states such as New Hampshire, Iowa or even South Carolina--where the model is already far more progressed--than across the vast half of the country that votes on February 5.

With Off the Bus, in the coming months, I'll be following up with the volunteers I met at Camp Obama and others around the country to dig into the progress of local Obama teams in February 5 states and the hard numbers of this great experiment.

If you'd like to join the Off the Bus citizen journalism project and research the progress of field organizing in Obama campaign or other campaigns, I could really use your help. Please sign up here and we'll put you right to work.