Our Obama story
by Joseph Hughes, Thu Nov 13, 2008 at 04:34:23 AM EST
We came in touch with something special over the last few months, something that had already been happening for many months before that. People came together to work on something big, something much bigger than themselves. People came together in the spirit of community and leaving America a better place than we found it. People came together to not only support a candidate, but to also support the idea that there's nothing - no problem we face - that can't be solved when determined individuals join hands and get to work. So many of you have a story just like this. And that's what makes what happened so special, so important, so vital to the future of this country. This is our story.
Part I: Building Momentum
Our first encounter with the Obama campaign came more than three months ago, when both my fiance Casey and I sought out the local campaign office. There, we met Jamil, who would be at the center of our early efforts and at the center of the office. Casey was immediately on board, soon distributing flyers to generate interest in the nascent student-centered campaign on campus. At the meeting advertised on the flyers, Casey stepped up, volunteering to take a lead role in raising awareness and registering students, while I began registering my coworkers. She also volunteered our house for meetings of the campus-focused group, a small team whose pre-October 6 goal was to register as many students as possible.
The meetings, which took place regularly through the last half of October, were amazing. There, students and young Obama staffers joined to touch base, brainstorm, strategize and review our efforts. It was a pleasure for Casey and I to host them, and to be able to give those working so hard a solid meal each and every time. This seems trivial - having good food - but the progressive movement is of no value if it, and its foot soldiers, can't be sustained. In fact, those in attendance looked forward to Casey's amazing cooking. Except, of course, for the time I burned a batch of garlic bread beyond recognition, truly the lone dark spot of the entire campaign.
From the start, I knew we had a strong team. Casey would work with student organizations. Dave with professors and their classes. Rachel and Chanelle with the residence halls. Brad with our many volunteers. I would fill in the gaps and do what I could when back in town after work, most importantly lending my design skills and marketing know-how to the mix. When the local office's citywide efforts ramped up, Jamil had to take more of a supervisory role. Soon, Vineeth, another campaign staffer, came to the area to assist our campus efforts. Following Vineeth was Will, who was soon followed by Robin, Allie and Beth. For the stretch run, we had five full-time staffers helping our campus efforts alone.
My first foray into campaign design came when I created posters and flyers in partnership with a music professor that were intended to provide registration information and wayfinding when an area registration event was afoot. Not wanting, at first, to appear overly partisan, the tagline was a somewhat neutral "Swing This State", reminding students of the importance of their vote. The difference between winning and losing Ohio in 2004, for instance, was a mere nine votes per precinct. With an enrollment of more than 20,000, the university and its students could play a clear role in helping put the winner over the top in 2008.
From these early flyers came a piece that was distributed in residence halls. And from there came two advertisements for an African American newspaper in a nearby town. A two-sided version with basic registration information was also developed for use with student organizations that didn't necessarily have the time for one of our volunteers or staffers to speak at their meeting. Our registration efforts, to that end, went quite well. Led by classroom registrations, student organizations and our hard-charging efforts to knock on as many doors as possible, we registered nearly 2,000 new voters. When the registration deadline hit October 6 and the final figure came in, we were both impressed and reminded of the hard work that was yet to come.
I should pause for a moment to point out some of the finer moments of the registration campaign. The first was when Matthew Lesko - the man in the question mark suit and authority on getting money from the government ("Buy my book!") - visited campus to drum up registrations. Turns out Lesko was the father of a regional Obama campaign staffer, and was very enthusiastic (he doesn't do unenthusiastic) about helping young people take advantage of their rights. The other came one late night when a team formed quickly and quietly to wallpaper campus with a variety of amazingly designed official posters, stickers and clings, all drawing audiences to the campaign's Vote for Change Web site as early voting began.
A third event was perhaps my favorite, coming the final weekend of registration. For several meetings, our group had kicked around my idea of setting up a tailgate before one of the university's home football games. With Robin on board and with the help of so many others, we put theory into practice. So, one sunny Saturday, many of us gathered to eat great food, refresh ourselves and register voters. Joining us was actor Nate Parker from "The Great Debaters", who even grabbed a clipboard and helped the effort. It was an amazing time and was far more rewarding than I could put into words.
Part II: Enthusiasm Into Action
With registration behind us, the focus turned to early voting. So, for a solid month, our task became both keeping the campaign fresh in students' minds and encouraging as many of them as possible to take advantage of early voting. An early vote is a vote in the bank for your candidate. But it's not just one vote. Once you vote early, your efforts can best be spent encouraging your friends to do the same, and on and on. So, therefore, banking one early vote was worth actually several more. I am confident that early voting played a massive role in turning Ohio blue this year. But let's not get ahead of ourselves ...
Our focus had three prongs - early voting, GOTV (get out the vote) and peer-to-peer marketing. It wasn't just about early vote commits, though. It became about building a community on campus. About identifying student leaders and helping forge connections. Beth would play a huge role in this effort. For years, the university has made it difficult for students to organize and engage in progressive activism. Our goal was to blast through those barriers. To accomplish that, bank early votes and encourage campaign volunteerism, Robin planned weekly on-campus rallies, while at the same time - thanks to Will and Allie - the campaign stepped up its phone banking and door knocking, realizing that it takes several impressions with an individual (around eight) to get a vote.
In addition to designing, I began to take a hands-on role in the campus campaign's Facebook page. It had been static for some time and I wanted to quickly expand its roster and turn it into a hub of activity. To me, that meant movement building, starting a conversation, involving students in the decision-making process, adhering to the campaign's goals of respecting, empowering, and including. Our first subsequent action was sending a message to the group not only thanking them for their membership, but also asking them to invite five friends. When new folks would join, I'd send them a similar message, asking them to grow the group. We also reached out to like-minded students, too. Within one week, we had more than doubled the group's membership.
We used the Facebook group to announce trainings, promote events, encourage early voting and promote volunteering. We posted photos of students with a cardboard cutout of Barack in the photo gallery. Dozens of students got "Baracked". We helped students "Barack the Halls", decorating their living spaces with Obama posters. And we helped coordinate rides to the Board of Elections through our Yes We Van program (pun intended). A group called the Obama Mamas assembled to help drive early voters to the polls. The program was a great success, even the Politico picked up a story about the effort. Altering the official Obama "seal" slightly into a tire and yellow-lined road for Yes We Van flyers was very, very fun.
As Election Day approached, our focus turned to a final push, where the last week before November 4 would be a mad assemblage of all of our differing efforts. The Facebook group would mobilize volunteers. The volunteers would make calls and knock doors for early vote commits. The rallies would be a meeting place for Yes We Van rides. It became clear that something BIG had to happen the day prior to the election. Enter UN1TE '08, one of the coolest and most important things I've been involved with in my time around politics.
The UN1TE coalition formed thanks to Beth's efforts, and was a joint peoject of campus groups ranging from African American students to LGBTQ students to Muslim students, with help from the College Democrats and many others. For the first time in a very long time, these groups actually joined with one another in a conversation, showing remarkable togetherness and determination. This coalition put together - with very short notice - a rally that included bands, artists, speakers, a DJ and myriad giveaways. Those in attendance could learn more about the election and get free rides to the Board of Elections to vote early.
To help promote the rally, I teamed with Mike, a very talented designer friend of mine, to put together a poster. Mike donated his time and quickly put together an image that we printed using a traditional letterpress process, complete with wood and metal type - truly the old-fashioned way. It felt beyond good when Beth and others planning the rally told us that early glimpses of the UN1TE '08 poster helped push them to make the rally as amazing as possible. My copy of the poster, without a doubt, will remain my most prized campaign souvenir. To me, it represents so much. Like everything in this campaign, more a beginning than an ending. But one ending was finally upon us. Election Day was here.
Part III: The Dream Team
November 4 will always remain a blur, a mix of early starts, hard work, minor frustrations, major celebrations and hundreds working together to achieve one goal. It started early for Casey and I, as we arrived at our staging location. Casey was a "Comfort Captain", and her job would be to keep both our volunteers and those waiting in line to vote, well, comfortable. This meant assembling a large supply of snacks, drinks and supplies (aspirin, antacid, tampons, etc.) to be used across campus throughout the day. Chanelle and I would be in charge of the street team, an ever-changing group of volunteers charged with chalking, postering and stickering campus, doing everything they could to bring attention to the election.
At our staging location, the comfort, street, canvass and campus contact teams would assemble and disperse throughout the day. Allie supervised the volunteer effort and helped steer workers and resources around campus, which we had divided into five zones, each under the command of a high-level volunteer or student group. Believe me when I say our effort, and the efforts of similar teams at schools and in towns nationwide, was organized. In fact, "organized" doesn't do it justice.
When you're on the inside, sweating out the details - who goes where, who needs what - you quickly lose track of the big picture. When you have blogs and the news networks at your disposal, the current state of the day is readily apparent. When you're so focused on your relatively small effort, however, your sense of how things are going doesn't necessarily jive with the national reality. When you're putting out fires and filling gaps, you tend to think things aren't going your way. When things are calm, though, things are going well. And it was calm nearly all day.
At any given time, we had dozens of volunteers across a bustling campus. When I would walk from zone to zone surveying our work, I would marvel at the fact that you seemingly couldn't walk 100 feet without seeing one of our enthusiastic volunteers. We had such an influx toward the end of the day, in fact, that our little student staging center sent nearly 20 volunteers back to the town's main office to help fill their canvassing needs. On a campus with more than 15,000 students in a relatively compact area, we had more than 13,000 get-out-the-vote conversations in one day. It was amazing.
When 7:30 came and the polls closed, everyone returned to the staging location, and we all let out a collective sigh. I would characterize the group's feeling as a mix of goofy and relieved. Everything we had done over the last few months - and beyond - had just come to an end, and it was all over but for the counting. We cleaned up, snapped up the remaining posters and stickers and split up to watch the results pour in. I cried when they announced that Ohio had turned blue, which pretty much sealed the deal for Barack. Our efforts had paid off; my tears were as much for the work we had done as they were for what was to come.
We quickly gathered friends and reconvened at the off-campus home of another volunteer. On our way in, at approximately 11 p.m., we heard a massive roar. When we entered the house, the place was nuts: People crying, hugging, high-fiving, toasting each other. We had won. It had all led to this. Barack Obama was going to be our next president. I can't tell you how good it felt as that feeling sank in. It still gives me chills. We watched John McCain's speech, then Barack's, and were stone silent as our next president prepared the world for what the next four years would bring.
The night wrapped up back at our staging location, where tons of students gathered to share in the joy of our amazing victory. Calls and text messages poured in from both in and out of Ohio. They all shared the same sentiment - congratulation and elation. I'll never forget that feeling. Just like I'll never forget the last few months and how so many people came together - at the university, in town, throughout the state and across America - to work toward the same goal. Our work paid off. But what's funny is that our work is just beginning.
Postscript: The Next Movement
What else is there to say about this campaign? I can start by thanking the Obama campaign for the bottom-up, grassroots nature of their strategy and their overarching desire to trust so much to their volunteers, people like us, and to put us in positions to succeed and become managers of our own. I've never felt so empowered and involved in the political process. Casey and I signed up to volunteer with the Kerry campaign in the same town four years ago. We could have done the same thing. We were never called back. Contrast that with this year, when I would sometimes get calls to help with this or that effort while I was busy working on yet another effort, sometimes even in the same room as those making the calls. It felt great to feel so useful.
I've never felt better about myself as a designer, either. Nothing I've done so far has been as important as this. Sure, I may have designed nicer stuff, or stuff that had a much wider audience. But nothing has allowed me to combine my passion for design and my passion for progressive politics like this. And let me say, as a designer, thank you to the Obama team for having the most nicely, coherently designed campaign in my memory, and probably in history. Not only was the campaign's message on-point, but its design was, also. When you've got street artists, font foundry chiefs and iconic stamp designers working for you, you're already headed in the right direction.
I would be lying if I said I didn't miss the day-to-day circus of the campaign. Sure, it stole every moment of free time from our lives and cost us a nice amount of money, but the excitement, the urgency, the togetherness of the campaign was special. And though it's easy to assume that the hard work is past us, knowing that we've elected Barack Obama, let me be probably the thousandth person to remind everyone that if don't work as hard over the next four years both keeping President Obama to his promises and making sure our government lives up to its mission, everything we've done over the past many months will have been a tremendous, tremendous waste. Let's not forget that. And let's not let that happen.
To the group - Jamil, Vineeth, Will, Robin, Allie, Beth, Chanelle, Rachel, Dave, Brad, Mike, and, of course, Casey, and to all of the others: Thank you. Thank you for inspiring me. Thank you for all of the hard work you did. Thank you for the late nights and early mornings. Thank you for believing in each other and what we were doing. I love you from the bottom of my heart. I would run through a brick wall for each and every one of you and would join you arm-in-arm for the next struggle. There's so much left to do and I'm as motivated as ever to roll up my sleeves and get to work. Together, we helped change the world.
Yes we did.