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Barack, Please Lead the Movement Too

by Wade Hudson

A Crisis Papers Guest Essay

December 2, 2008


Many Obama supporters are worried about what kind of organization will emerge from the campaign. Those who are concerned have included top-level leaders from the campaign who have expressed themselves publicly.

Barack can resolve this issue quickly and easily. He can simply tell his staff to spin off an independent organization that is truly dedicated to community organizing. I encourage folks who support this direction to let Barack and/or his people know.

Then we can proceed to build a strong national movement committed to helping Barack implement the goals of his campaign. Without such a movement, we won‘t be able to “transform the nation, “ as Barack called for during the campaign.

Marshall Ganz, the architect of Obama's grassroots organizing program, is among the concerned. On Nov. 17, he told Micah Sifry,  “It's very important what Obama decides. Whether to try to support some kind of organized effort, that's rooted in the campaign, or not."


SQUANDERING AN OPPORTUNITY?

According to a Nov. 14 report in the
Los Angeles Times:

"[I]t is no simple task to convert an insurgency into a standing army.

"That challenge has sparked rare discord among Obama advisors who ran a highly disciplined operation with no public disagreements throughout the long campaign.

"Traditionally, the new president would blend his campaign operation with his party's national committee. Some of Obama's closest advisors lean toward that pragmatic view.

"But others, who built the grass-roots organization, worry that linking it too closely to the party could cause the unusual network to unravel -- and squander an extraordinary resource....


NO MERGING WITH PARTY

"If it's in the party," said Marshall Ganz, a Harvard University lecturer who helped design the training curriculum for Obama's organizers, "that's a way to kill it."

Steve Hildebrand, Obama's deputy campaign manager and an architect of the grass-roots network, has been warning the president-elect's team that it risks turning off activists who were inspired by Obama but who never considered themselves a part of the Democratic Party.

Since that report, the Obama team seems to have decided that the campaign will not totally merge with the Democratic Party. But many other questions remain unanswered. Barack and his team may still waste a remarkable opportunity to build a strong grassroots movement rooted in solid community organizing.


SHAPE OF THE MOVEMENT

In his 11/20/08 essay, ”The Movement to Elect Barack Obama: Prospects, Possibilities, Proposals,"  which was circulated on the Net via email, Ganz stated (emphases added):

The campaign to elect Barack Obama as President launched a movement.... Now, the question is, can it flourish? …It is time to consider the shape such a movement could take….

President Obama may provide the movement with moral and political leadership but not its organizational leadership. Who can? And how would it work?...

Some people, especially political operatives, seem focused on transforming the Obama movement into a Web-based network: funds could be raised, information shared, emails called for, etc. As a kind of Presidential “MoveOn,” such a network could mobilize support when needed, albeit thinly. But this would omit the “community organizing” that infused the campaign with the grassroots leadership that gave it its strength…. Such a “Campaign for a New America” would create a representative governing body and invite organizers, leaders, and volunteers to work through it as a major venue for “active citizenship” at all government levels…. In other words, dealing [with] the challenges we now face may offer the opportunity to reengage ourselves in the work of self-government.

Apparently, the national Obama for America staff in Chicago is still engaged in an intensive planning process about these issues (in a rather secretive manner, which Ganz has criticized for not being more open). On Nov. 20, Marc Ambinder reported: “There are so many senior field organizers that the Obama campaign had to organize five days of conferences with four simultaneous calls per conference [with up to ten participants in each facilitated call].” These calls were to conclude on Nov. 25.


CHICAGO DEBATE IS INTENSE

The fact that Ganz and Hildebrand have gone on record with their opinions suggests that the debate in Chicago is intense. Of particular significance is Ganz ‘ comment about some “political operatives” wanting to reduce the Obama movement to a mere Presidential support mechanism.

During the campaign, there was considerable tension between the canvassing methods used in traditional political campaigns and the community-organizing strategy that was also employed by the campaign in many, but not all, states. “A lot of [the organizers] are committed to an organizing vision here and they fought for it throughout the campaign,” Ganz told Sifry. For Ganz to say that organizers had to fight for an organizing vision is revealing, and consistent with my own experience and observations. In the heat of a campaign, it ‘s easy to focus only on canvassing (including voter registration, phone banking, and Get Out The Vote), while neglecting to crystallize relationships and commitments for enduring activism.

Based not on impersonal relationships but face-to-face meetings rooted in a common purpose, organizers help volunteers build stable teams with a consistent core membership to advocate for change in their communities. In contrast to canvassing which merely involves occasional brief contacts, community organizing is based on ongoing relationships. As Ganz told Laura Flanders, "Canvassers assess voter preferences. Organizers inspire commitment." Community organizing is participatory. Rather than just telling volunteers what to do or asking them to do something specific, it involves holding small meetings to give everyone a voice in making key decisions.

On Nov. 25, the day that the conference calls with field organizers were to conclude, David Plouffe, Obama ‘s campaign manager, used MyBO to issue a call for house meetings in mid-December to help “bring change to both Washington and [your] own communities.” Absent any official report about the conclusions from the planning process in the Chicago office or any word from Hildebrand and Ganz, we ‘re left on our own to interpret whether this call reflects a clear, strong commitment to serious community organizing.


MORE IDEAS FOR MOVEMENT

Myself, I find the Nov. 25 call for December house meetings a small step in the right direction, but ambiguous and inadequate because it falls short of the kind of commitment to organizing that is needed. It offers no concrete, long-term organizing vision. To my mind, it feels more like the prelude for a superficial Presidential support mechanism than a commitment to deep community organizing.

The Host Guide for those house meetings fails to include essential elements f or solid team building. For example, it proposes a mere 60-minute meeting including a 10-minute video, which isn't enough time for meaningful interaction, especially with the suggested 15-20 participants (which is probably too many).

The guide only suggests that the host “share what inspired you to be involved in this monumental journey, the goals for the meeting, and why you think it important to continue working for change.” It does not suggest that all participants introduce themselves by telling their own story, which was a key part of the Obama organizing strategy.

The guide fails to articulate a consistent commitment to democratic decision-making. Rather, it suggests, “Ask your guests to help lead your future efforts,” rather than decide those matters together. And it suggests, “Make sure to let all of your guests know about your next event,” which fails to suggest collaborative decision-making (which regardless would be difficult with 20 people in the 30 minutes suggested for political planning).

The guide doesn't suggest that participants share food and drink, which would allow for informal socializing and the development of supportive friendships. And it doesn't suggest that the host ask which participants would be able and willing to meet monthly.

With a stronger and clearer commitment to community organizing, the deficiencies in this guide could be corrected. But other questions must also be answered.


GOVERNING THE MOVEMENT

The most important question is one posed by Sifry: How will this movement govern itself? With a new, independent organization, the first task, as Ganz pointed out, will be to establish a representative governing board. To my mind, at least during the first few years while the organization stabilizes itself, that board should be self-perpetuating ? that is, the board itself should fill vacancies rather than having the general membership elect board members directly or indirectly through representatives. Moreover, the board will need to delegate responsibility for determining the content of recommended actions to be undertaken nationwide, or establish a mechanism for making those decisions.

If a self-perpetuating board is established, the next question will be: How will members offer input into decisions made by the board and/or national staff? One option would be for individual local teams to send feedback on their own, as the Nov. 25 guide requests. My recommendation, however, is that the national office should establish a fair and efficient mechanism for representatives from local teams that meet at least monthly to communicate horizontally with one another to share ideas, information, and encouragement, and to develop recommendations to send upward toward the national office. These conversations could also enable staff in the national office to monitor and evaluate what is happening locally.

The organization would also need to develop methods of participation for individuals who are unable or unwilling to meet monthly with a local team. Some people might only respond to action alerts. Others might only engage in community service. But with regard to listening to input, the national office should give priority to representatives of local teams whose members meet at least monthly and discuss issues face-to-face, which results in more thoughtful decisions. These local teams need to be the foundation of the movement.

To accomplish these goals, the national office could facilitate the formation of city or town, state, regional, and national advisory councils. Local teams would select representatives to their city or town advisory council, each of the advisory councils would select representatives to the next-higher level, and each council would subdivide once it became too large for manageable, time-limited conversations.

During the campaign, some regions were able to establish horizontal communication on their own, like with conference calls between neighborhood team leaders. But so far as I know, the national campaign did not assist or provide guidance concerning how to conduct these conversations most efficiently. So by and large, it seems to me, groups operated in isolation from one another, communicating with one another haphazardly. The post-election organization might well operate in the same manner.


ENDURING MOVEMENT NEEDED

An official structure for team representatives to define input to send upward toward the national office would be risky. The risk is that a consensus might emerge that contradicted the national office. But that risk is what happens with empowerment and the potential gains far outweigh the risks. More than nine times out of ten, I suspect, decisions developed by the advisory councils would be consistent with established policies, and this collaborative approach would likely result in stronger support for Barack than would be the case with isolated units primarily responding to appeals from the national office.

We need a massive, unified, democratic, strong, and enduring grassroots movement that on occasion acts in unison to push for changes in national policy. To be massive, it needs to briefly mobilize people who are already burdened with other commitments. To be unified, it needs to overcome the fragmentation of the progressive movement, while at the same time fostering proliferation and autonomy. To be democratic, it needs to enable ordinary members to deliberate with one another and offer thoughtful input into major decisions. To be strong, it needs to sustain its members by spreading joy and fellowship, developing support structures, providing personal nourishment, and nurturing self-development ? for a movement is only as strong as its individual members. To be enduring, it needs to avoid dependency on any one leader and be prepared to continue for decades ? for our constant struggle is never-ending. The more we achieve each of these goals -- massive, unified, democratic, strong, and enduring -- the more we ‘ll achieve the others, for they will reinforce one another.

For these reasons, I urge Barack to give direction to the movement he sparked by telling his top staff that he wants the campaign to transition into a grassroots organization based on the following principles:

  • The organization should be based primarily on small, close-knit teams of individuals who: * Commit to help achieve the goals of the campaign; * Meet at least monthly in one of their homes;
     

  • Consciously develop supportive friendships;
     

  • Engage regularly in community service;
     

  • Make decisions together about their joint political actions;
     

  • Each month, the organization ‘s leaders should recommend to all Americans that they communicate a particular message on a top-priority, timely issue to all members of Congress and the President.

The organization should establish a fair, efficient mechanism to enable each of its teams who want to do so to select representatives who will communicate horizontally with representatives from other teams in order to:

  • Share ideas, information, and encouragement;
     

  • Develop well-thought-out recommendations to send upward toward the national office.

For Barack to take this approach would be unprecedented. Some people believe that it is completely unrealistic to hope that a President will lead a real movement by spinning off an independent organization from his campaign. Others believe that we should merely focus on supporting him as our President, which is a legitimate option for those who prefer that approach.

But so long as Marshall Ganz and some folks in the national office push for more, I ‘ll continue to recommend a full-throated community-organizing approach and encourage others to do the same.

Together, we can.


Wade Hudson is the editor of the Progressive Resources Catalogue.

 

Crisis Papers editors, Partridge & Weiner, are available for public speaking appearances