Volunteer for Change
By Jesika Brooks
“This is your victory,” declared President-Elect Barack Obama to an ecstatic crowd in Chicago’s Grant Park as Election Day approached midnight on Nov. 4. People shouted and furiously waved tiny American flags in response.
In his victory speech, Obama thanked his legion of enthusiastic volunteers, “the millions of Americans who volunteered, and organized, and proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this Earth.”
Grassroots efforts played a huge role in the success of the Obama campaign. The volunteer infrastructure, complex enough to require a flowchart, had been in place since the primaries.
At the heart of Obama’s volunteer infrastructure was the staging location, a particular area where groups of volunteers organized their efforts. South Carolina had 161 total staging locations during the primaries, according to The Huffington Post.
These staging locations were scattered throughout the state. All counties had staging locations, said Get Out the Vote (GOTV) coordinator Karen Sundstrom. Richland County alone had 18 staging locations.
Sundstrom dedicated herself to the Obama cause. She was involved in prepping volunteers for leadership positions within the volunteer hierarchy. Volunteers with leadership positions went through training sessions in one of seven locations in South Carolina and received marching orders in the form of file folders.
On Election Day, each member of the volunteer hierarchy leapt into action. Staging location directors had to be ready for duty at 5:30 a.m. Poll checkers stood guard at polling stations in their precincts, listening for the names of Obama supporters to be called out by poll workers. At specific times, poll checkers reported back to their staging locations. Phone workers were alerted and, with this list of names, called unaccounted-for Obama supporters. This process resulted in what Sundstrom called a “feedback loop.”
“Decentralized citizen involvement” was a key aspect of the Obama campaign. Volunteers had ample opportunity to support the Obama cause. Duties ranged from phoning undecided voters to feeding hungry volunteers.
As Sundstrom put it, “There are no small jobs.”
Before Election Day, organized chaos permeated the Campaign for Change headquarters, a maze of corridors on Hampton Street in Columbia, S.C.
A sign hung by the far wall in one of the first-floor rooms: “COOK For CHANGE!” A pencil portrait of Obama raffled for $5 a ticket.
D.J. Cooper is a stay-at-home mom who acted as a gofer during the headquarters’ pre-Election Day madness. “I believed in him from the very beginning,” she said.
Cooper started out by volunteering as a walker during the N.C. primary. Her partner was a technical college professor also new to canvassing. “It was a beautiful day in North Carolina. We walked; we talked; we knocked on doors.”
After that experience, Cooper thought, “I need to do more to make sure he gets elected.”
She participated in several voter registration drives, recognizing the passion of the Obama cause: “People are so plugged in.”
Some people made sacrifices for the volunteer effort. Sandra Gortman quit her job at a law firm to work for the Obama campaign office. “I don’t regret it at all,” she said.
Gortman was inspired by her fellow volunteers. She spoke fondly of Cassie, the 11-year old daughter of another Obama supporter. Gortman said that Cassie “begged her Mom to bring her” to the Campaign for Change headquarters and volunteered as a caller twice a week and on weekends.
Sheila DeShazior, a mother of three, is an independent entrepreneur with GTN Services, a communications vendor. She took calls and directed other volunteers in the headquarters’ first-floor phone room. DeShazior also supplied volunteers with parking tokens.
“I believe in what we’re doing,” said DeShazior. “This is a model for change.”
DeShazior donated a food cart to supply food and drink to people lined up along Hampton Street, waiting to cast their votes. Volunteers brought coffee and snacks to cold, hungry voters.
Kieana Page, S.C. Democratic Party research and communications assistant, pointed out the diversity. “You have an equal balance of young and old, black and white, rich and poor, all working for one cause.
“They all see the vision. That’s what makes it about change,” said Page.
Obama acknowledges the change to come: “The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America — I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there.”
Brooks is an English major and art minor at Columbia College. Graphic design and linguistics are two of her passions.