By Katie Hogan, Executive Director, Organizing for Action
Organizing for Action’s core purpose has been to build a more accessible and participatory democracy. As we take a look back at the past six years, we couldn’t be prouder of this movement’s contributions to that fight. Nor could we be more excited to enter this new chapter together to further that goal — but more on that in a bit.
As we celebrate everything we’ve already accomplished together, I want to emphasize that none of this would have been possible without our incredible volunteers, who have constantly inspired us with their tireless commitment to — as President Obama put it — “the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.”
When Organizing for Action launched in 2013, it was a grand experiment. We set out to harness the power of the grassroots movement that had twice elected Barack Obama as president, and convert it into a nationwide organizing, training, and issue advocacy group that would continue fighting for the core values that brought it together in the first place.
OFA’s decision to make a massive investment in long-term, multi-issue, community organizing was both an obvious choice and a significant gamble. On the one hand, there was no way we were going to let this family — this network of impassioned and engaged citizens dedicated to making positive change — wither away when there was so much work left to do. On the other hand, there was no true precedent or blueprint for success when it came to the nature and scope of our endeavor.
Fast forward six years and this model no longer seems overly risky or audacious — after all, grassroots activism has been resurgent in the past two years, and volunteer-driven groups like Indivisible and Swing Left have quickly become powerhouses. Well the truth is, there is no greater testament to OFA’s impact than the influx of progressive organizations taking on grassroots movement-building with training and leadership development as essential program areas.
Leadership Development: Strengthening The Progressive Movement
OFA has always been an organization deeply rooted in the core values of the 2008 Obama for America field team: Respect. Empower. Include.
Our foundational organizing model grew out of that campaign’s ‘neighborhood team’ structure and channeled President Obama’s belief in the extraordinary power of ordinary citizens:
“One voice can change a room, and if one voice can change a room, then it can change a city, and if it can change a city, it can change a state, and if it change a state, it can change a nation, and if it can change a nation, it can change the world.”
Where many organizations prioritize politics and aim to manufacture a ground presence to meet the political needs of the moment, OFA focused on cultivating deep relationships with volunteers and empowered them to make a difference in their own communities. We met people at various points of engagement, equipped them with leadership skills, connected them with fellow local activists, and provided them with opportunities to take action.
Through this approach, OFA fostered the formation and growth of hundreds of volunteer chapters all across the country — well-trained neighborhood teams that functioned autonomously, but received ongoing support from staff and mentors. And, by successfully marrying long-term relationship building and organizing with mobilizing, we were able to build lasting grassroots muscle that could be flexed at the drop of a hat for key issue fights.
In a political culture that too often requires and rewards privilege, OFA has always taken great pride in offering high-quality, professional, cost-free leadership development programs. Our efforts have helped build the pipeline of progressive talent and helped ensure that the next generation of leaders better reflects the great diversity of our country. Over the course of the past six years, we have trained 62,243 volunteers on effective conversations, issue advocacy, community organizing, and voter contact best practices.
OFA training was rooted in the belief that anyone taking action or even thinking about taking action for the first time could become a change-maker, a community organizer, and leader in their community.
Through our cornerstone six-week fellowship courses, OFA trained more than 6,000 activists at no cost to them. Fellows from every religion, race, socioeconomic status, gender identity, and sexual orientation received training on the foundations of community engagement.
As a way to help fellows take their leadership to the next level, OFA launched its Leadership Pathway Partnership Program (LP3) in 2017 to connect graduating fellows with key progressive organizations that could help them take the next step, such as running for public office — organizations like Emerge America, New Leaders Council, Run For Something, and The Collective PAC. This partnership was remarkably popular. Since the LP3 program launch, over 90% of participating fellowship graduates have been connected with one of those groups.
We also dedicated ourselves to growing the mentoring and coaching capability of our leaders. As the fellows program evolved, we paired participants with volunteer coaches, and led them through leadership courses on conflict resolution, emotional intelligence, and uncovering personal leadership styles. We saw fellows and fellows leaders take this knowledge and go on to work with other progressive organizations or volunteer for campaigns. In fact, 70% of OFA fellows surveyed volunteered for a progressive campaign in the 2018 elections, adding their skills and value to help take back the House in 2018.
Issue Advocacy: Changing Hearts, Minds, And Policies
Over the past six years, OFA has helped lead mobilization efforts around a slew of critical fights for progress, holding well over 30,000 grassroots events across all 50 states on all the issues we care about.
On some issues, the impact was tangible and the results were overwhelming — like when a surge of grassroots action defeated the Obamacare repeal effort last cycle, despite the fact that the party that had campaigned to repeal the law for eight years were in control of the White House and both chambers of Congress.
In other fights where Congress has failed to act, we made significant gains in the form of shifting political dynamics and moving public opinion. Volunteers and chapters also worked with their elected officials and other partners on the ground to take action on issues at the state and local level — from gun violence prevention ballot measures to state climate change legislation.
While redistricting offers the most sweeping opportunity to unlock progress across the board, it’s worth considering how much has changed on key issues since OFA’s launch:
- Health Care: In 2013, Obamacare was considered politically toxic, but things are a bit different these days. OFA ran a sweeping years-long campaign around this flagship issue, including an initial campaign to support enrollment in which OFA volunteers pledged over half a million volunteer hours to help people learn about the law and sign up for coverage during the first enrollment period. When Republicans shut down the government to try and force repeal in 2013, OFA volunteers flooded their phone lines and offices until they backed down. After a sustained campaign to show the harm the government shutdown had on families across the country, 81% of Americans disapproved of the shutdown. More recently, as conservatives worked to sabotage the law, we fought back again, continuing to educate Americans about its benefits, boost enrollment, and amplify success stories. And when repeal seemed inevitable after Republicans won control of Congress and the White House, OFA played a leading role in the game-changing grassroots movement to save the landmark legislation, and an untold number of lives along with it. At the end of the day, not only did we preserve Obamacare, but it became the defining issue of the 2018 midterms as Democrats took back the House.
- Climate Change: Climate change was famously absent from the 2012 presidential election, and when OFA launched in 2013, observers were surprised to see it as a top-tier issue for us. OFA climate volunteers recognized the urgency of this issue however, and they became one of our most dedicated cohorts, fighting for the Clean Power Plan, the Paris Agreement, and our country’s switch to clean energy. Our goal was to change the conversation on climate change — and we succeeded, with this campaign playing a significant role in bringing climate change from a niche issue for environmentalists into the crucial mainstream issue it is today.
- Gun Violence: Even after Sandy Hook, 2013 efforts to pass common-sense reforms were thwarted by the gun lobby’s seemingly unshakable grip on Congress. OFA members were devastated — but we never gave up. Volunteers never stopped organizing events, demanding action, and holding the gun lobby accountable. They marched alongside the inspiring Parkland students last year as they galvanized the nation. By fall of 2018, an astounding 93% of firearm-related ads in toss-up House races were in support of stronger laws to prevent gun violence, and the NRA had grown so politically toxic they stopped publicizing candidate grades.
- LGBTQ Rights: In 2012, when President Obama endorsed marriage equality, Gallup polling showed that just half the country stood with him. When OFA launched the next year, we quickly made the issue a priority. On top of national advocacy campaigns, we lent our grassroots power to statewide efforts, including helping to win a long-odds victory for marriage equality legislation in Illinois. Needless to say, the Supreme Court eventually made marriage equality the law of the land — and Gallup found in 2018 that net approval had skyrocketed by 34 points.
- Gerrymandering: Republicans used a 2010 electoral wave to draw themselves a historically undemocratic advantage at the Congressional and state legislative level, wreaking havoc on progressive priorities across the country. Until recently, gerrymandering had been, as the New York Times recently put it, a “preoccupation of wonky party strategists and good-government groups.” But redistricting is going mainstream. In 2018, fueled by grassroots activism, five states had anti-gerrymandering initiatives on the ballot. OFA and Attorney General Holder’s redistricting effort backed all five initiatives — and all five were passed by voters, most of them overwhelmingly.
Electoral Politics: Applying OFA’s Model To The Midterms
Until the recent midterms (other than a handful of statewide ballot initiatives), this iteration of OFA had never engaged in elections. But last year, we launched a new program called Organizing for ‘18 designed to harness our grassroots capacity, training expertise, and proven organizing model to help notch key electoral victories.
It was an ambitious campaign that aimed to tap into our greatest strengths and maximize our impact. We wanted to boost progressives’ field capacity by preparing organizers in priority districts to fill volunteer leadership roles for local campaigns.
We had three buckets of targets: 27 Republican-held House seats where OFA had or created a strong volunteer presence; state-level elections with redistricting implications; and select ballot measures.
We interviewed hundreds of OFA supporters who applied to be ‘Team 18 Leaders’ — high-level volunteers who were committing 10+ hours per week to this program, and would go on to develop local grassroots teams, train activists, run phonebanks, canvasses, and staging locations as volunteers for the campaigns they were supporting.
In addition to grassroots organizing, we built a unique online education resource that provided in-depth contrasts between the Republican and Democratic candidates in targeted House districts. And we built a new open-source tech tool called EveryVoter — an automated email platform that provided OFA supporters with geo-targeted voter registration, early voting, and Election Day information, as well as specific messaging on local House, Senate, gubernatorial, and state legislative races.
In the end, the Organizing for ‘18 program exceeded all of our goals and expectations:
When we put it all in one place, it’s overwhelming to look at how much the OFA family has accomplished. And that’s just what we did over the last six years, as Organizing for Action — before that, it was this movement that twice elected Barack Obama president, helped pass health care reform in the first place, and so much more. But our work has only just begun.
As I said before, OFA’s core purpose has always been to build a more accessible and participatory democracy. And that’s exactly what the next chapter for this movement is all about.
OFA is putting it All On The Line to reverse undemocratic gerrymanders — devoting our grassroots power to drawing more fair maps for the progress we can achieve.
Something is fundamentally wrong when politicians feel emboldened to spend nine years trying to sabotage our health care. Something is fundamentally wrong when they repeal measures to combat climate change even as the country demands far bolder action on this crisis. Something is fundamentally wrong when they fail to enact gun laws backed by 70, 80, or 90% of Americans. Something is fundamentally wrong when comprehensive immigration reform can pass the Senate 68–32 and never even get a vote in the Republican-controlled House.
Something is fundamentally wrong. Self-serving politicians rigged our democracy — but we can fix it.
We have the chance to reshape our politics and unlock progress that has long been out of reach. It’s a chance we can’t afford to miss. Whether you care about expanding access to quality health care, or taking bold action to combat climate change, or reforming our broken immigration system so it lives up to our nation’s values, or finally passing common-sense laws to prevent gun violence, or securing equal rights and opportunities for all Americans… with redistricting, it truly is All On The Line.
OFA has combined forces with All On The Line, a multi-year campaign to make sure our government is more responsive and representative by ensuring we have a fair democratic process and fair maps. The campaign is already off and running with organizing events all across the country, and thousands of people signing up to get involved. This is how we’re carrying forward the OFA torch in that ongoing fight for a fairer, more representative democracy.
To the OFA family: I want to thank you once more, from the bottom of my heart. Twelve years ago, I was drawn to Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign — and for 12 years, you all have reminded me each and every day why I joined this movement in the first place.
You’ll be hearing more from our friends at All On The Line as they ramp up their efforts to meet this generational challenge. I hope you’ll continue fighting alongside myself, President Obama, and countless others in this family to build a more perfect union.