Wednesday, May 7, 2008

"Super Volunteers" Reshape America: A Profile

Yesterday’s two Democratic Primaries brought more than three million voters to the polls to choose between Senators Obama and Clinton, but behind those votes were thousands of volunteers from both sides. Over the past week, I spoke with three of the volunteers about their experiences.

Traditional canvassing efforts have been around for many years, and by the 2000 Election the Internet already played a significant role. There is something noticeably different about the ways in which activists have been channeling their energy in the 2008 Election. Their responses to the candidates’ calls to action are more than constructive and effective; they’re self-generated and inspired.

The Obama Volunteer Corps fanned out through the historic Olivewood Cemetery in Houston on a cleanup mission for two Saturdays in April as part of the community-oriented work the group performs on a regular basis. The group of more than 70 volunteers, under the direction of twenty-eight-year-old Brad Pritchett, is one of three similar organizations across the country where Obama supporters work together on largely non-political service projects. “The Corps’ main purpose is to take Senator Obama’s message of change and prove that words can inspire people to do remarkable things in their own communities,” says Pritchett. After the cleanup at Olivewood ended last month, one member of the Corps began working with the City of Houston to establish a long-term solution that would protect the cemetery.

In Santa Cruz, California a volunteer has been working feverishly for Senator Hillary Clinton on the other side of the Democratic campaign. Vickie Nam, a doctoral student at UC-Santa Cruz didn’t stop her volunteering at canvassing and phone-banking; instead she created an online business (Visit it HERE) where she sells Hillary Clinton t-shirts of her own design. A portion of the money from the site’s sales goes to the Clinton campaign and a portion goes to Wellesley College, Clinton's and Nam’s alma mater. Nam, who does not typify many young voters in her choice of candidate, penned a letter to California Congressman Sam Farr (an undecided superdelegate) arguing her case for Clinton. She wrote that young people supporting Senator Clinton are “resisting the master narrative and are perhaps demonstrating true grass-roots organization.”

After a group of Obama supporters on a local college campus were featured on a television broadcast, Ms. Nam collaborated with a producer at another area station to create and air a segment featuring young Hillary supporters. “I have always had a passion for creating outlets for adolescents and emerging adults to speak out and be heard,” she says. A second-generation Korean-American, Nam sees strength in Senator Clinton that resonates with her and has inspired her to be such an active volunteer: “I am inspired and often moved to tears by the strength that Hillary has revealed during this stormy election, but she keeps on because she loves and dreams about America.”

While Ms. Nam has been helping out Senator Clinton directly, Brad Pritchett maintains that the Obama Volunteer Corps is less about politics and more about lending others a hand. His group welcomes any volunteers to join their service efforts. However, Pritchett’s political beliefs clearly motivate his actions. He sees the civic efforts of the Obama campaign as reflecting the “desire of people wanting to embrace a political message which returns much of the power to the people, as opposed to giving it all to politicians.” For that reason Pritchett isn't surprised that Clinton volunteers have not created groups similar to his. Having a philosophy deeply rooted in the platform and vision of a candidate while simultaneously transcending the traditional boundaries of political activism the Obama Volunteer Corps has reached an unexpectedly balanced approach to activism in the midst of a heated campaign.

The creation of the Obama Volunteer Corps is not the only non-traditional effort started by supporters of the Senator. In the central Ohio town of Newark, singer/songwriter and composer Celeste Friedman recently wrote a song and created a YouTube video accompaniment called “Oh Barack!” In 2004 Friedman penned and performed a song for the Kerry campaign entitled “Carry Me Home,” but this time around she isn’t begging her Democratic candidate to fight harder, instead she has been inspired by the uplifting messages of the Obama campaign.

Friedman’s Obama tune came to her easily, she says, especially because she does not consider herself an overly political songwriter. “The one thing that was standing out the most as I was writing the song was light. It was all I could think about in the darkness of the world as it exists right now.” After becoming a supporter of Obama this January, Friedman now says she is more firmly behind Senator Obama than ever and feels she is truly counting on him now that she has put her own stamp on his campaign.

In the process of creating a video slideshow to play along with her song, Friedman collected pictures of Barack Obama with the help of over forty independent photographers on Friedman says the responses she received from Obama supporters around the web who enjoyed her song pushed her to create the video, and she has stayed in contact with a number of the project’s contributors. Though she communicated her political beliefs through a musical skill most do not have, Friedman says, “I didn’t take advantage of that like the people [activist songwriters] in the 1960’s did. I think I’m no different than anyone else in this country.” In her eyes, ‘Oh Barack’ is “a little cheesy, but it was what was coming out of me.”

As pundits around the country declare the Democratic nomination sealed up and predict the course of events in the coming months, thousands of “super volunteers,” both Republicans and Democrats, won’t stop until every vote has been cast and counted. Celeste Friedman has an upcoming gig for which she will (somehow) have to write a song about John McCain to perform in front of a group of parents and children. The Obama Volunteer Corps will continue working on Houston-area service projects even after the November election. Meanwhile, Vickie Nam recently delivered a shipment of 400 Hillary Clinton signs to be transported to Oregon, the next stop on a long and busy campaign trail.

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