Grassroots organizer /ˈɡras ˈˌro͞ots/ /ˈôrɡəˌnīzər/: a person in a campaign who marshals the most basic level of an organization, ordinary citizens.
I was working for the Obama for America campaign as a regional field director in Southern California during the 2008 presidential election. I was based in Los Angeles, but on this day, I was in Rancho Cucamonga, organizing the training of volunteers. They were the ones who would carry on the work of voter contact and bring the message of hope, action and change to voters in the Inland Empire.
They came from all walks of life – Black, White, Latino men and women, teenagers, people in their 40s and in their 80s. People who had never volunteered, and people who’d volunteered steadily since John F. Kennedy’s campaign. Their excitement was palpable.
I took a break during the day and turned over in my mind what my purpose really was.
I saw my job as fighting for justice of all kinds – social, economic, racial, environmental – and to do it fearlessly. As a Christian, I took this as a spiritual call. And in coming alongside the grassroots volunteers, the ordinary people who were moved to get involved, my mission was to evoke their leadership.
It had been this way since I first turned to politics in 2003.
At that time, the United States about to invade Iraq and I was angry that everyone seemed to be going along with the idea. The presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq seemed to me the most transparent of lies.
I began to wonder: What can I do as an ordinary citizen? A presidential election campaign was forming and I decided to get behind the candidate – John Kerry – who I thought would be successful in defeating the current regime – President George W. Bush – and looked for ways to get involved.
I had worked in theater, film and television, but had never organized politically before. I quickly discovered that my skills translated rather well to grassroots organizing. I had to work with groups of people, with finite resources of time and money – a shared purpose and a deadline.
Only it was not Opening Night, but Election Day that energized us.
Kerry lost that election, but I now I was immersed in politics, and had experienced the power of ordinary citizens.
Through local Democratic politics I was elected to the state party, and then to its executive board. I was meeting elected officials and candidates, and also worked on ballot measure campaigns with the leadership of California partisan politics. We enjoyed a great camaraderie, the energy of competition and a strong sense of mission. Local candidates began offering me jobs to run their campaigns and were willing to pay me, so I left my former career behind.
What captivated me was the ability to organize power – and this has motivated me ever since, through my work as field coordinator, political director, campaign manager, and even recently as an aide to the mayor of Los Angeles.
If you want to change the way the country is run or get a stop light installed at a dangerous neighborhood intersection, you still have to build community, hone a convincing message, and bring the power of the people to bear on the outcome you want to achieve. That’s politics.
After it was clear that we would win the Democratic nomination in 2008, and before the convention, I was in charge of the delegate selection process in Southern California with a colleague in Northern California.
He and I were both paranoid that supporters of our opponent might manipulate the process by flooding the delegate selection caucuses with their own people and hijacking the process. We orchestrated a stringent means of limiting who could participate. When we were on a call with our boss, Barack Obama, we proudly described what we’d done to protect his nomination.
Obama then said, “No guys, let them in. Don’t worry about it. There’s no need to overthink it. Trust the process.”
From that moment, I realized that the democratic process is something greater than any one person or group of people. While it needs to be safeguarded from those who would manipulate it to oppress people, it is sustained by the people’s strong will to live in freedom, equality and justice for all.
Trust the democratic process. Trust the people.
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Editor’s note: On Sept. 20, the newsmagazine “Body Politic: People Making Democracy Work” went out to subscribers. While so much media attention goes to politicians, the truth is that citizens at all levels of engagement keep democracy going. “Body Politic” highlighted players in our region’s political ecosystem, getting beyond platform points and party ideology to find out what motivates them, what they care about, and what they hope their part adds to a healthy political process.