This evening I took part in an alumni+student career event, which was set up exactly like a speed dating layout. For five minutes, students wandered around the room to talk to the person representing a career field they were interested in until the cow bell rang, signaling the time to move on to the next career, a surprisingly accurate portrayal of what life is like for organizers and millennials alike. I was a little nervous at first, like I always am when talking to people I don’t know very well, but the students who sat down to meet me were enthusiastic enough at the beginning to keep the conversation going for the first five minutes. After that, most people who sat down only did so because I was the last one they had visited or they didn’t know what grassroots organizing was.
While setting up my table, which was basically putting down two Mountain Dew cans, I looked to my right to see the guy at the Real Estate table focused on setting out candy, which immediately took me back to my time as a field organizer for President Obama in Iowa when I was setting up for a organization fair at a Community College in Peosta. I had brought the usual table props-chum galore (buttons, posters, stickers, fans, you name it), information about fellowships, Voter Registration forms, and Vote by Mail request forms. Yes, I was ready. My years as a UNO College Democrat had prepared me this. As I was setting up my ‘Women for Obama’, ‘LGBT for Obama’, and ‘Iowa for Obama’ signs to the front of my table, two women who from the local Republican Party’s table walked by, side eyed my table (it was glorious and they were obviously jealous) and passively aggressively muttered-in a way that ensured I would hear, “The Democrats didn’t bring candy.”
It didn’t register right away. The woman at the Radio Shack table next to me laughed, the kind of laugh the girl who hangs at the outskirts of the popular kids’ circles hoping to get noticed laughs, and by the time what they said had become clear, it was too late to respond. To this day, however, I still dream of pivoting on my heal and waving dramatically, “OH MY GOD YOU’RE RIGHT I FORGOT THE CANDY!” and with a playful chuckle I would add, “You know, sometimes I think my mind is SO FREAKING LIBERAL it’s a wonder I can even get dressed in the morning, amiright ladies?! I mean, who in their RIGHT (*rimshot*) minds would forget the friggin candy? I’m calling my boss, telling him to pack up the office. This election is over. We know who won. When historians look back on this moment, they will wonder why one insignificant field organizer managed to forget the damn tootsie rolls of all things. Here I am with stupid VOTER REG forms and no candy! Amateur!” Naturally, this didn’t happen in real life, not only because of my consistently non-confrontational personality, but because, even if these women were twice my age, SOMEONE had to be the adult.
Real Estate, guy, however, couldn’t care less what I was there for, and I was OK with that, although a small part of me wanted to rectify my lack-of candy past (and present) and I would have been ready for it, too. Dammit, I would’ve. Instead, I passively sipped my Mountain Dew, my right leg bouncing up and down, already experiencing the effects of excessive caffeine. Eventually students started sitting down at my table to talk to me. The first student who sat down did so only because he had been invited five minutes prior to the event and had no idea what he was supposed to do. We laughed about his casual attire, as I told him how I wished we could have dressed up in clothes indicative of our career (much like a kindergarten class, now that I think about it…), because I would have been much more comfortable in jeans. The student responded, “I thought you were a doctor at first.” And I know what you’re thinking and yes, this absolutely did go straight to my head. I straightened up and felt a boost in my confidence before delving into a brief synopsis of what organizing is.
Apart from asking, “What is grassroots organizing,” the question people asked me the most was if a political science degree was necessary to pursue a career in politics. “Oh, no,” as I laughed the way a jovial grandparent would laugh at that handsome Anderson Cooper’s giggles, “I’m a Spanish major!” In some cases, this proved to be distracting for the student however, with one woman asking me for advice on how to become fluent in Spanish. I felt like Lucy from Charlie Brown, expect I wasn’t charging a nickel (another lost opportunity, damn!) for each session. The second most asked question, and only because it was the same guy asking it three times in different ways, was “How do you get your foot in the door in politics?” After telling him three different ways: Volunteer, volunteer, volunteer, the message finally stuck.
Similar questions included, “Do you work for one person or several?”, “When do you work?”,
“How do you conjugate ser into the pluscuamperfecto tense?”, “How do I get involved.” Before I describe how I answered the last question, I should let you know that lately I have been referring to (with slight malice but even more heartache) the upcoming inauguration of Mayor-Elect Stothert and the “what shouldn’t have happened” end to Mayor Suttle’s term as Mayor as “The Switch”. So when one student asked how he could obtain internships at the Mayor’s Office, I replied, “Well I don’t know if the Mayor’s Office is hiring summer interns right now because of,” as I paused dramatically for effect, “‘The Switch’, but you could always try the Governor’s office, Lee Terry’s office, Deb Fischer’s office, and maybe in the fall try the Mayor’s office again.”
As I was listing off the offices where this tiny, frightened student could intern, it finally hit me as I got to the Mayor’s Office that, “Holy fiery shit balls they’re all Republicans now!” And, there-to that poor, poor student-I made a declaration to work as hard as possible to make 2014 different. Fortunately for the boy, the cow bell rang and his turn with me was up, which was great timing because I had gone completely pale, my eye started twitching, and I began muttering under my breath.
While I don’t know what the students I talked to took away from our conversations, as each one took shape organically and in different ways, some people enthusiastic to be talking to a fellow Democrat, and some people asking repetitive questions about how to make it in the biz. What I made sure to tell them, apart from the leadership skills and how transferrable the duties of an organizer are to any facet of life, whether personal, professional, or otherwise, was that, since a huge portion of the organizer’s work depends so much on the help of other people, that it was important to remain humble, above all. Adding to that, I told the students that to be an organizer it was also important to be appreciative, and to always make your volunteers like they’re making a difference and that their help is invaluable, to always be kind (because it’s true that the volunteers will come for the candidate and stay because of you), to be encouraging and reinforcing of great work, and to know your volunteers’ strengths and to build upon those.
It doesn’t matter who you are or what your name is in the end, it depends on how you acted under the immense pressure that comes with being an organizer-whether you’re on a political campaign or an issue based campaign- and how you treated others. When it gets to be too much and you feel like you can’t take another hour of data entry, it will be your co-workers who hug you when you’re crying behind the office. Your co-workers will be the only ones who understand what it’s like to work on a campaign; the long hours, the angry voters, the uncertainty of what’s going to happen tomorrow that will completely shift your schedule, and the endless piles of empty pizza boxes everyone keeps tripping over.
When you leave a campaign office for the last time, you don’t leave the whole campaign with it. On your way home, as you drum your fingers away to songs that kept you fired up through the long hours, angry voters, and flaky volunteers, you might find your lips twitching stubbornly into a smile as you reminisce about things you found funny only when you were going on three hours of sleep and everything seemed to be falling apart.
You’ll find yourself missing the midnight basketball scrimmages behind the office that helped keep everyone sane as you worked well into the early hours of the morning. You’ll check the time neurotically and wonder when that volunteer is bringing in that lasagna for the office dinner. As you’re driving through town you may perk up because you think you’ve seen the car of a co-worker, and when you honk and wave stupidly, it will soon dawn on you that the person you thought you were waving at is now 500 miles across country.
When you find people at the bar who live in the state you worked in, you start drilling them about if they voted by mail, what county they voted in, and what their precinct demographics are. You’ll wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night because you convinced yourself that you forgot to prepare for a major event and to get yourself back to sleep, you’ll start counting voter registration forms, imagining pieces of translucent paper gliding into a box hovering above your pillow in order to lure yourself back asleep.
One day you might be walking down the street and see a flash of blue and you’ll follow it like a loyal puppy to see if it was a bumper sticker for the candidate you worked for. You’ll have to consciously stop yourself from talking in acronyms. “I worked for the IDP, collected 300 VBMs, and recruited 4 SLDs, with the help of my RFD and NTL. It was awesome.”
Somethings you might be happy you left behind. The volunteer who only wanted to bring in food and not knock on doors or make phone calls. The volunteer who never showed up or who showed up with a million irrelevant questions about what they were supposed to do. The county party chair who had plenty of opinions on how to run the campaign but never enough time to knock on doors. The long hours, the horrible diet, the constant turf wars.
But the things that will never leave you will be the most precious things you may carry with you, like the moments when your world was collapsing in on itself and your crew stepped up to have your back and save the day, and when you could return the favor. It becomes impossible to forget when your boss encouraged you to keep fighting when you thought you had lost the battle. You’ll miss taking trips across the parking lot as a group to get breakfast at the Panera across the way, the endless string of inside jokes and the volunteers who stayed for an extra shift to knock on doors and make phone calls. The knowing nods, giggles or eye rolls you gave to a co-worker across the office when a volunteer was doing something they shouldn’t have been doing will now be between you and your roommate (or just yourself in my case).
After all the conference calls, recruitment calls, persuasion dials, and one on one meetings, you go home at the end of the day wondering why you chose a job where you’re constantly surrounded by people 14 hours a day for months on end. Then, when it’s all over and you leave, you start adding up the value of your personal belongings because you’d give anything to have those people back in your life again.
You may never be able to adequately describe the work you did on that campaign to anyone outside of it, but in a weird way, you find comfort in that because when the world starts to crumble outside, you have a safe, secret place to retreat to and remind yourself that there was another time in your life when it seemed the world was falling apart, and you made it through that a better, stronger person. You can breathe, smile, and tell yourself, “I’ll make it through this, too.”
So to the new breed of organizers who are just starting to cut their teeth into this tricky business, don’t be scared. Four years ago, although I wasn’t your typical college junior, I was absolutely scared of what I was going to do (but that could have been because it was the fall of ’08 and I was scared of a possible repeat of the last 8 years of terror and incompetence). It wasn’t until I walked past the UNO College Dems table that I decided to have a go at politics, and for my first meeting I sat in a corner, staying silent and hoping no one would notice me. When I joined the exec board, my friend Niki Jordan worked very hard to make sure I had something to say at each meeting. Cut to me two years later, giving a speech in front of 200 people. Cut to me today, talking to complete strangers about this passion of mine and preparing to move to another country for a year. Organizing isn’t just a resume builder, it’s a million life lessons crammed into one job.
So just remember: be humble. No job is too small. You can learn so much more on a school board race than you could ever learn on a presidential campaign. In politics, it’s all about who you know, and if you don’t treat the people you know well, you won’t be successful. Don’t be scared. There are people who are ready to get you started on this path and they’re excited to see you. And they believe in you and the power you have as a young person to help change the world (suck it, Bill O’Reilly). The world doesn’t end when you lose, either, it’s just a wake-up call to remind you that you’re human, you make mistakes too, but you learn from them and you move on. Better to have lost fighting until the very end than to have lost by doing nothing.
So go crazy, kids. And help us change the world.