December 2 was the run-off election for Georgia's senate race. That day, after polls closed at 7 PM, I stopped canvassing at 6:58 PM and was able to jump in the car (having to sit on doorhangers) and rush downtown from the suburbs to see Howard Zinn, one of my idols, speak.
Years ago, Zinn cemented my convictions of helping the people, the importance of grassroots, and community with A People’s History of the United States. I could envision no better way to top off long months of community organizing than to see this man speak. My coworkers (fellow organizers from across the nation) agreed with me and we dashed to the swanky Woodruff Arts Centre.
We were the last ten people admitted to the plush theatre for the preview screening of the documentary. My dreams were being realized, in spite of the depressing returning results of the day.
And then these dreams were challenged. Howard Zinn, who I esteemed so much, seemed to look down on the work done by Obama organizers. More than doubting the sincerity and follow-through of the then president-elect (perhaps correctly, it is true), Zinn claimed that the work done by the field team was not true community organizing, as it was too candidate-centered.
Now, I respect Howard Zinn more than I can express. However, having read Alinsky's Rules for Radicals and taking to heart the message of "think globally, act locally" I must disagree with Zinn. The only explanation I can comprehend is that Zinn is not aware of the scope that this particular brand of organizing has had over the nation and its participants. Maybe it is easy to criticize something from the comfort of a theatre with red velvet seating.
Obama's field structure was based on the concept of neighborhood volunteer teams reaching out to their communities. Organizers, under the direction of regional and state field directors, managed turf. They found volunteers and employed the snowflake model, in which everyone is dependent on each other. With things like the Story of Self (reason for personal involvement), Story of Us (community), and Story of Now (call to action), these neighbors become friends who work hard for each other.
I was a part of that. The motto of "respect, empower, include" is flawless. It was used on me by organizers, getting me to become an intern and eventually, after they were taken out of Georgia, help to run the areas they had once run. I could not let down Sonya, who lost her voice so she canvassed instead of making calls, or René, who, after two hip replacements, walked an entire packet by himself each day in the week before the election and on election day. For them, I stayed the extra hours and worked harder. After the session, my organizer friends and I spoke to Zinn. He said he respected how hard we had worked but doubted the program could continue.
Zinn was wrong. My volunteers still care, even after the election of Obama and Jim Martin’s loss. They have gotten involved in county politics, run a book drive for underprivileged kids, and taken me to dinner for my birthday. They have plans to canvass apartments twice a year to keep the lists clean and people informed. With spreadsheets, confirmation calls, and the strength of the bonds they built, I believe in them.
With nights like that night one in December, with all the people sitting around agreeing with Zinn, I can get frustrated. They were thinking about and believing in making the world a better place for everyone. Some of the people, though, would rather sit and discuss and criticize than make some phone calls from a call list with a script, making a start on fixing the life they say is wrong. I used to be one of these people, so I can sympathize to a point. But get up and take a stand. Grab a walk pack and a water bottle and have faith in something. I was apprehensive, too, but it has been more than rewarding for me. “Regular” life is boring and makes me feel guilty. Talking is not quite enough, which is why it is important to think globally, act locally.