Some of us nonprofit people follow every nuance of every policy battle while others shun the world of politics, preferring to concentrate on the immediate tasks presented by the organizations and causes we serve.
Torie Osborn of Los Angeles, with a decades-long history of working in community groups, is all about applying the energy and skills developed in the Obama campaign to breathe new life into nonprofits. Below you’ll hear a different perspective from Carol Stone in George W. Bush’s Legacy: A Dramatic Increase in Volunteer Spirit.
We’re excited to share these two First Person Nonprofit perspectives with Blue Avocado readers, and look forward to your comments on both. First, here’s Torie:
Our new Community-Organizer-in-Chief-elect has big plans for me and the 789,999 other California Obama volunteers from his campaign. First we got that short, sweet email signed simply “Barack,” thanking us for our active duty in the Obama army for change.
Then, he asked us to help retire the Democratic National Committee debt, and then, to help fight the terrifying fires that were raining ash down on my Los Angeles garden in November by giving time and money. I don’t think he’s got a coherent strategy for us yet, but I do know I’ll hear from him again and again when he wants my support for policy rollouts. And, when he unveils his new national service plan too.
But I’m betting that it won’t be enough for us. The chain of trust and transformation that fired us up in California and across the country left behind more than an email listserv of people who will be satisfied with being activated to support the president’s initiatives. I’m also betting people will soon seek more activity than their current twittering and blogging about Obama’s every staff appointment.
Revolutions are made by raised expectations. California now has hundreds of thousands of newly empowered warriors for change who did not just get one man a new job: They have changed their own lives. They have tasted the delicious flavor of collective action, built new skills and relationships, and found their own new voices as changemakers. Many will seek a continuing outlet for an engaged, mission-driven life. Is our nonprofit sector ready to embrace the wave of people who will want to continue at least some measure of their civic engagement?
The California Obama field operation was the biggest muscle behind his electoral landslide, making some 10 million phone calls to battleground states, nearly 60 percent of ALL the calls made nationally. In the last Get Out the Vote weekend, 18,000 Californians made two million calls. Ask anyone in politics: that is an off-the-chart feat. (Those calls meant that all volunteers working in battleground states across the country could focus on going door to door, looking people in the eye and reaching every persuadable voter to get them to the polls.)
A Social Movement in Full Bloom
But more than campaign short-term free labor, the campaign gave us permanent and transferable leadership skills, experience, and that immeasurable, transformative unseen force: empowerment. We lived daily in the bright and enlivening energy of a social movement in radiant full bloom. We became proud community organizers, in a broad sense of the word.
We overcame fears. A middle aged female technophobe, I quickly began to live with my laptop attached to my body, and merrily learned at last how to text. I watched a woman with a lifelong terror of dogs face down more than one Rottweiler going door-to-door in rural Nevada. We learned how to talk to people who don’t think like us; better yet, we learned to listen to them. “Respect, Empower, Include” was the living mantra of the campaign. We were America: Republican, Democrat and never-voted, old and young and rich and poor, of every color and culture.
I know change is happening because of how many of my straight Obama campaign Latino and African American sisters and brothers hit the streets with me in protest of passage of the anti gay marriage ballot measure Proposition 8, and vowed solidarity with the LGBT community in any future efforts to repeal it.
We Obamaniacs have been living life in technicolor; we won’t readily go back to gray business as usual. We won’t revert to mere consumer status when we’ve been empowered and engaged and transformed actors in taking back America. A mark of a social movement, I’ve learned in my long lifetime of activism, is when people want to quit their jobs and work for change professionally. I am betting that along with the hundreds of Californians who run off to Washington to join the Obama administration, there will be a sizable wave of new applicants who seek to work in our nonprofit sector.
Can We Transform Stale Nonprofits?
Here are the questions I ponder: Will the “Obama movement” – with its culture of community organizing and its newly empowered legions of thousands of warriors for change – provide a new demand system that will be able to transform our often stale nonprofits into more vibrant homes for civic engagement?
Will new volunteers and staff members pour into our nonprofit sector, and bring with them some critically needed high-tech upgrade, some young people on a new path, some reinvigorated engagement strategies?
Will nonpartisan voter engagement finally become a staple of every service nonprofit that works with young people, immigrants, low-income communities of color?
Will a significant part of the nonprofit sector re-tool for real and active policy advocacy learning to partner with local and federal government in new ways to homelessness and poverty, to fight climate change? Will California rise up to fix the broken fiscal and governance systems of the state? How deep and wide will the coming change be?
Recently, Dr. Robert Ross, CEO of the health foundation California Endowment, made a strong call for nonprofits to replace our name with the Greek letter for change. Will we at last become “the Delta Sector”? Stay tuned: Yes We Can!
Torie Osborn is a longtime social activist and former executive director of the Liberty Hill Foundation and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Currently she is a writer and senior advisor to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the United Way of Greater Los Angeles. She is a Durfee Foundation Stanton Fellow.