In his last address to the nation as president, President Barack Obama took a moment to thank a group of people who often go overlooked. “To all of you out there, every organizer who moved to an unfamiliar town, every kind family who welcomed them in, every volunteer who knocked on doors, every young person who cast a ballot for the first time, every American who lived and breathed the hard work of change, you are the best supporters and organizers anybody could ever hope for, and I will be forever grateful. Because you did change the world.”
Here in Indiana, a most unlikely place due to the state’s right-leaning election history, hundreds of staffers and thousands of volunteers worked countless hours leading up to both the 2008 and 2012 elections to ensure a victory for their candidates. As the decade-long era comes to a fade, those involved from the beginning are in a reflective mood.
Jiles McCloud and Peter Luster, the first two Black employees hired to work for Obama For America’s local outfit, shared that their time with the organization consisted of pivotal moments they won’t soon forget.
“It totally started out as just a volunteer opportunity for me,” said McCloud. “I became interested in his candidacy after the South Carolina primary and on a Saturday afternoon decided to go into the office and help out.” McCloud had never before volunteered with or been directly involved in any political campaign.
“I had watched everything up until that point, but with the 50-50 tilt (between Hillary Clinton and then-Sen. Obama). I didn’t want to support his candidacy just because he was a Black man. I wanted to be fair about that with myself and make sure that who I voted for would be the best president,” he said.
Though McCloud didn’t know what to expect, the overall culture that he experienced through interacting with other supporters is what drew him in. This camaraderie has resulted in the organization being affectionately referred to as the “OFA Family.”
The OFA headquarters, located at 16th and Pennsylvania in what is now the Thirsty Scholar coffee shop, attracted people of various ages and backgrounds. Volunteers and staff sat around tables making calls to other supporters and potential voters, created walking packets with voter registration forms and other info for the purpose of canvassing neighborhoods, and collaborated to plan events and rallies.
“I’ve been halfway around the world and back and met a lot of people. Many of them I don’t remember. I have been in some pretty important moments in life, and the group of people that this campaign created … the biggest value that Obama created is a vacuum for people to organize themselves,” said McCloud. “What came out of the ’60s and ’70s, whether you were pro Black, a Panther, or all the way lefty tree hugger or Grateful Dead fan, there was no vacuum for it. I don’t remember in the ’80s or ’90s a place for folks to organize themselves or a means to do so. That’s something that it created. So, the feeling of camaraderie, whatever it takes. That was the culture. And yes, I think it’s a family, because that’s how families are.”
Luster, a political consultant who has worked on campaigns for Evan Bayh and Hillary Clinton, got to experience the Obama campaign from several different vantage points. He first became involved as an intern while finishing his studies in political science before holding several posts — field organizer, regional director and state director. He even spent a month on the road with Obama, prior to his first presidential election, as a press assistant.
“What got me going is watching him,” said Luster. “Indiana is normally a donor state — Democrats come in, they get money and leave. But I was feeling pretty optimistic at the time.”
As soon as the OFA team got to Indianapolis and set up shop, Luster dove in.
“What was motivating is that there were a lot of people who wanted to be involved. Not like, ‘Oh I want to work for Barack Obama,’ but it was like, ‘Hey what can I do’ … when you see folks coming together in a state like Indiana where it has never mattered … that’s really the glue and the bond that kept organizers together as we went down the road.”
Some of Luster’s most fond memories include the initial capacity-building for the organization. He and others started by contacting people who had self-identified as supporters via an online portal. Those individuals would come into the fold and then begin contacting other supporters. In time, the group grew in number, at which point they began calling and visiting potential voters. Neighborhood teams were formed, and workers talked directly to people living in their own communities.
He recalled a special moment when he visited with a woman living in Pike Township. While conversing with Luster, she shared that her son was suffering with a bone disorder.
“She said, ‘Look, we need some kind of health care. I know (Obama) has been talking about that and it’s something we need.’” Luster said the young man fell into a “gray area” as he was ineligible for both Medicaid and Medicare. “He couldn’t get anything, and he wasn’t able to work. She sat right there and I’m in her doorway. She literally started to tear up, and that affected me personally. Even in my family I have folks that are in the gray area. That’s one of those stories that really impacted me.”
Another impactful memory of his was the number of young people who were motivated early on to get involved.
“Students and young people who were just motivated off the sheer energy of having a Black president … You had people come into the office who had never volunteered. People walked in off the street. Obama kept telling us that if anyone wants to be involved we have an obligation to include them,” he said.
Luster shared that, although the work was rewarding, it was one of the hardest jobs he’s ever held, as field organizers routinely worked 100 or more hours per week.
“The kind of work you have to do to win, the number of people you have to talk to … In Pike, let’s say I have 80,000 residents and there are 40,000 I have to talk to, three times. People have wrong numbers, they’re not home. You still have to talk to them three times. When you think about those goals statewide and the organizers that we had, it’s amazing,” he said. “It shows you the dedication, commitment of the organizers and activists.”
As people all over the country prepare, in both celebratory and melancholy fashions, for the president-elect’s inauguration, the mechanism that propelled Obama into the White House and supported him while in office is ramping up once more.
Obama for America, the first phase of OFA, acted as a campaign machine whose purpose was to galvanize voters in support of the presidential candidate. Once Obama was elected, OFA became Organizing for America. In this capacity, OFA was a nonprofit arm of the Democratic National Convention that advocated for the Affordable Care Act and assisted midterm Democratic candidates among other tasks.
OFA’s most recent iteration, Organizing for Action, will focus directly on advocacy and implementation of policy around health care, immigration and other issues. To put it simply, the organization seeks to not only preserve Obama’s legacy, but also to protect the progressive actions that have occurred over the last 50 years. It has been reported that Obama will play an integral role in the organization.
Locally, past members of OFA will gather Jan. 20 from 5–10 p.m. at the IBEW Local 481 for a farewell party, where they’ll no doubt share tales of what it’s been like and what’s to come.
“You haven’t seen a campaign do what President Obama has done. The people who will show up are permanently a part of the OFA family. Anybody who has been through that training and action are a part of that family,” said Luster. “That’s us coming together to support this president and his example. It’s us saying thank you, because he changed a lot of our lives. He without a doubt changed mine.”