|Organizing for America: A Proposal|
|by Wade Hudson|
Barack Obama and his people have laid the foundation for Organizing for America (OFA), the post-election incarnation of their campaign operation. Not everyone is happy. Many Obama supporters are disappointed for one reason or another. But our situation is urgent and countless numbers of activists want to sustain the Obama movement. We need to accept what we have and help make OFA as effective as it can be.
With those thoughts in mind, following are some suggestions concerning how to move forward, mindful that we are in unchartered waters. No President has ever been elected with the kind of grassroots resources available to Obama. So OFA is an act of improvisation and much remains to be determined concerning how it will work. We’re creating a new kind of organization; there are no models to copy.
Based on official statements made so far, we know that Obama and/or key staff he has selected will control the OFA message. The organization is going to work closely with the Democratic Party. It will not target certain legislators for lobbying when they resist recommendations from the Administration. Rather, members of the organization will engage in public education.
Given this novel starting point, certain possibilities stand out. The primary mission of the organization can be mutual education – folks learning from each other and educating themselves.
An early project could be to establish a National Community Dialogue with Elected Officials on the same day each month, for example, the second Saturday at 2:00 PM EST. Initially, the focus could be on Congresspersons, Senators, and the President. Later on, local and state officials could become involved, perhaps on another day.
Each of these town hall meetings could utilize the same format and focus on the same general question: How can we best improve our community? The elected official could arrange for the meeting and help publicize it. A neutral moderator, such as a journalist, could facilitate. The event could open with a ten-minute report by the elected official or a top-level staff person concerning their recent activities. Then speakers from the audience could have three minutes each to engage the elected official or staff person, either by making a statement or asking one or more questions. The forum could then close with a ten-minute closing statement by the elected official or staff person responding to comments from the audience.
Speakers could be selected randomly, with no screening other than requiring that they live in the official’s district. They could address any issue. Before and after the event, community-based organizations could distribute literature to audience members as they arrive and at tables. Audience members could be invited to continue the conversation afterwards.
In this way, citizens could educate legislators and each other, and legislators could educate their constituents. Activist organizations could use the events as an organizing tool by mobilizing their members to participate. Media coverage, some of which could be live, could contribute to the educational process. By posting transcripts and videos on the Web, nonparticipants could learn from the dialogues. Events with Senators and the President could use advanced communication tools to enable distant participation.
The result could be a structural reform of our democracy that could enable constituents to better hold their elected officials accountable.
Another early OFA project could be the formation of home-based teams consisting of OFA members who live in the same Congressional district. These teams could meet at least once a month to share a meal, develop solid friendships, discuss issues, and make decisions together concerning how best to improve their community, including community service and political action. They could also form recommendations to communicate to the national OFA office, their elected officials, and/or the Democratic Party.
The national OFA office could provide written guidance to these teams in terms of how to conduct these meetings. Paid staff organizers could also conduct training sessions to develop meeting-facilitation skills.
The national office could also empower these teams to select one or two representatives to meet with representatives from other teams in advisory groups. These groups could meet periodically, at least quarterly, and be small enough to allow for deliberate decision-making concerning their own recommendations. The national office could provide a neutral staff person to facilitate these meetings. Perhaps after meeting two or three times, these teams in turn could select representatives to a next-higher level advisory group. Eventually, a national body consisting of members selected by this process could form.
The result could be a national advisory body that could speak for the whole membership with some authority.
OFA could make it clear that each home-based team and each advisory group could be independent and could speak only for itself, not for OFA. The national OFA governing board could determine who could speak for OFA.
If needed, each home-based team could initially be asked to work with other home-based teams and other community organizations to persuade their Congressperson to participate in the National Community Dialogue. Thereafter, teams could regularly send a delegation to talk with their Congressperson’s staff about how they could work together to better their community, which is a collaboration all Congresspersons could fruitfully undertake on a regular basis.
Eventually, federal legislation could be enacted to require such Congresspersons, Senators, and the President to participate in the National Community Dialogue.
In these ways, OFA could grow a strong community and help steadily transform this nation, our culture, our government, and ourselves.
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This is a well-thought-out, well-written plan; exactly the kind of thinking we need to be doing right now. A few suggestions:
- There has been a whole lot of work done at the local level to engage citizens in local policymaking and problem-solving. So far, this history has been largely ignored in the discussions about OFA, but there's a lot to learn from the successes and failures of local leaders.
- One of the key lessons is the importance of small-group deliberation to enable people to learn from each other, consider the policy options, and plan for action. Your proposed format here sounds too much like the old-fashioned public hearing style of public meeting, which isn't working for people anymore (either citizens or officials.)
- Another key lesson is the importance of proactive, network-based recruitment to assemble large, diverse numbers of people. This kind of critical mass is what gives citizen-centered politics its power (as evidenced in the Obama campaign).
Keep up the great work -
Deliberative Democracy Consortium
Thanks much for the feedback. I very much agree that broad recruitment is essential and I'm familiar with some of the valuable, small-group deliberative processes that are being developed. I should think that if a network of OFA advisory groups were to form, at least some of them could utilize some of those methods. Such groups could complement Community Dialogues, which aren't intended as an exclusive solution. Rather, they are conceived as a relatively simple and easily executed, yet fair and open, structure that would be valuable in and of themselves and a catalyst. They could prompt more civic conversations of various sorts, including small-group deliberations, which take more effort to plan and execute than would the Community Dialogues. You also continue your work, which is very valuable.