If you’ve been following the election at all, you know that Barack Obama’s work as a community organizer has been a high-profile issue in his campaign. I was at dinner with one of Oxfam’s organizers last week (said dinner took place at a sports bar in Kansas City, Missouri—more on that in a moment), and he told me that all the recent news coverage about organizers has led to a lot of questions about what he does for a living.
In fact, after accompanying an Oxfam speaking tour throughout the Midwest, I’ve learned a lot myself about what organizers have to contend with.
This particular tour focused on the human face of climate change, and featured two grassroots leaders—one woman from Senegal, and one from the US Gulf Coast—speaking about how global warming affects their communities. Turnout was good (given the election and financial crisis going on at the same time), and the audience members I spoke to said they felt motivated to make a difference. Local newspaper stories, radio coverage, and legislative visits helped get the word out to a wider audience.
Of course, none of this would have happened without Jim French, the aforementioned Oxfam organizer for the Midwest region. Toting a heavy cardboard box of campaign materials, Jim guided the speakers and assorted hangers-on through five US states in as many days. He drove a rented minivan from Omaha to Kansas City in one late-night stretch. He networked with volunteers, friends, and allies to make sure people showed up to each event. And at each one he made a brilliant presentation of his own about why climate change matters in the Heartland.
Also on board was Boston-based organizer Stephanie Demmons, who stepped in at the last minute to help out. In Omaha, Stephanie impressed me when she rigged up an Oxfam promotional table in about two minutes flat, then smoothly stepped into her role as moderator for the evening’s discussion.
Seeing Jim and Stephanie in action, it struck me that their main task—to mobilize Americans to act on issues of global poverty—isn’t easy right now. With all that’s happening here at home, it can be a struggle to make people care about these issues. Yet the organizers out there on the front lines, trying to create change, one person at a time. And if people don’t respond, they see it as their own personal failure to get the message across.
That’s why I figured Jim was relieved when the speaking tour ended last Saturday morning, and I asked him as much as he drove us to the airport. But I didn’t get the answer I expected.
“I love doing this,” he told me. “I’m already looking forward to the next one.”