The New Generation of Organizers

The progressive movement is seeing a resurgence of younger organizers thanks, in part, to the "Obama effect" of the 2008 campaign, and a renewed attempt to articulate values and build authentic relationships.

Young Adult Organizers & The Five Organizing Practices

From the Courage Campaign to the immigration reform movement to the Episcopal Diocese, organizations are capitalizing on the momentum that the Obama campaign generated. These organizations are recruiting young adults with or without experience in organizing and training them in the leadership skills taught at Camp Obama, which include the mastery of five distinct practices:

Build a Public Narrative

Values-based organizing invites people to escape “issue silos” and come together as complete human beings whose diversity is an asset to collective effort. As the source of the moral energy that it takes to organize, values are communicated as a narrative. Organizers can learn to inspire others by learning to tell their own story, a story of experiences shared with others, and a story of an urgent challenge that demands action.

When Obama introduced himself to the nation at the Democratic National Convention in August 2004, he told his public narrative. He told a story of his calling to public office, reminded us of our calling as Americans, confronted us with urgent economic, social and political challenges, and inspired us to make choices to realize our vision of who we are. Obama’s mastery of motivating others into action energized his audience around core values that had been dormant among Democrats for years: equality, community, interdependence, and dignity. It was not that other political leaders did not share these values; they were simply unable to bring them alive in ways that could animate a constituency into action. Obama’s gift and skill for telling his story of hope lit the spark for a movement, especially among the young, a movement of “moral reform” in the best American tradition.

When Hope Wood, then 28 years old, heard Obama’s 2004 DNC speech, it “awakened the hope inside of me that I could make a difference.” Wood vowed then and there that she would “get political” when Obama ran for office himself. In 2007, Wood got her chance, and with no organizing experience, she attended a “life-changing” Camp Obama in Los Angeles where she “was born a community organizer” when asked to tell her public narrative to 200 other volunteers. As a mixed-race white/Mexican closeted lesbian who was married, she was afraid to reveal her true calling to the campaign, even to herself. But in finding her voice, Wood found that she could be an effective organizer by articulating her values and building authentic relationships with others based on those values.

Wood went onto organize “Obamawood,” a local field team that grew from four to 500 by the Iowa caucus, ending at 1000 strong on Election Day. Her team used public narrative to motivate others to take action — to vote for Barack Obama. They went house-to-house and phone-banked weekly, meeting at Tangier, a local bar, for every return and debate-watching party. Wood is now the Northern California Field Manager for the Courage Campaign’s Equality Program in Oakland, and she and three other field staff support 34 volunteer organizers to mobilize others to take action for LGBT equality in their local communities.

As Wood learned, public narrative is a practice that can be structured, learned, and shared. This focus on mastering the craft of storytelling permeated the campaign through YouTube, campaign Web sites, and, perhaps most dramatically, Obama’s “race” speech, delivered in Philadelphia on March 18, 2008, which concluded with the “story” of Ashley, which came from a South Carolina house meeting. As a leadership practice, public narrative enables organizers to articulate their core values encourages trust among them, and enhances their efficacy by enabling them to engage voters far more effectively than the use of traditional scripts, talking points, or messaging.

Establish Relationships

As de Tocqueville noted, the process of association — not simply aggregation — makes a whole greater than the sum of its parts. As such, relationship building goes beyond delivering a message, extracting a contribution, or soliciting a vote. The “lateral” connections, entirely missed in canvassing, telemarketing, or most e-mail driven operations, are what create the “glue” — or social capital — that sustains volunteer engagement in the face of challenge, inspires creativity in the work, and supports reaching out to diverse social networks to engage the broader community.

Obama campaign organizers learned the craft of one-to-one and house meetings that laid the foundation for local organizations, rooted in the commitments people made to each other and not simply to an idea, task, or issue. At a training session modeled on Camp Obama for youth organizers in the immigration reform movement, Jose Luis Marantes, age 23, learned the art of a one-to-one meeting. Marantes grew up in Hialeah, Florida, a Cuban-American center outside of Miami. Marantes’ mother, a medical billing clerk, immigrated in 1970 and his father, a mechanic, arrived here in 1980. Marantes was raised mostly by his grandparents, and he credits them for his ability to build relationships with people of any age.

Marantes is now a youth organizer at the Florida Immigrant Coalition & Students Working for Equal Rights as part of a youth immigrant reform movement for the Dream Act, a piece of proposed federal legislation that “would provide certain illegal immigrant students who graduate from U.S. high schools, are of good moral character, arrived in the U.S. as children, and have been in the country continuously for the last five years prior to the bill’s enactment, the opportunity to earn conditional permanent residency.” In support of this legislation, Marantes spends his days dedicated to building relationships with others.

In one-to-one meetings, Marantes initiates, develops, and renews working relationships with volunteers. A key distinction between organizing and mobilizing is that he is not simply trying to get a signature, a donation, or a pledge of support. Successful one-to-one meetings lead to house meetings in which the “host” invites a broad network of associates to attend — some of whom agree to hold their own meetings, activating the networks that weave their way through every community.


  1. These organizers have taken advantage of the internet and really used their skills to get their message across! This is really amazing to me and hopefully I can be as good as they are.

    Thanks Kerrie Evans

  2. I think this article is spot-on. Obama has certainly raised awareness among youth to become active in civil aspects such as this. Its about time a new generation of those who want to “get involved” emerge – and it appears that is just what is happening. challenge coins


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