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Faces of Health Care Reform: Inside Organizing for America's Ground Game

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, July 31 2009

Last week, I floated the idea that what Organizing for America was doing in collecting personal health care narratives from supporters amounted to busy work for the organization's legendary base. In retrospect, that was Magoo-ish of me. It's too easy to become obsessed with the inside baseball of how health care legislation is being hammered out in the offices of Max Baucus and Henry Waxman and Nancy Pelosi and miss the outside game -- the work being done in the 3,537,431 square miles of America that isn't Washington DC. For one thing, grassroots organizing is less flashy then legislative negotiations. For another, it's more challenging to report on a distributed efforts than it is to track a few key people. We saw in the 2008 presidential campaign, where few reporters and commentators had an informed understanding of how the Obama field organization operated on the ground and around the country.

Yesterday afternoon, I had a conversation with Organizing for America new media director Natalie Foster that suggests that, while OFA is certainly still figuring out how to be effective from the outside, the health care stories they are collecting are one tactical carry over from the campaign that still can carry some punch -- though its difficult yet to judge their impact. Telling personal stories, we know, was a key tactic in the Obama campaign. Humans like looking at other humans. All this talk of "bending the curve" and other unfamiliar concepts can leave us cold. But we feel the pain of other human beings powerfully and viscerally. Part of that is empathy rather than sympathy. We can often see ourselves in their shoes.

Stories are collected through BarackObama.com's Health Care Stories for America hub. A few hundred thousand stories, says Foster, have been submitted through the site so far. The collection of personal stories is classic community organizing. Here, though, there's the added boost of the Obama campaign's legendary database. Many storytellers have a past relationship with Obama/Organizing for America, and their narrative is paired with the contact information and demographics the organization has on hand for them. The most powerful storytellers are turned into surrogates.

Some storytellers are recruited to come tell their stories at local meetings. Some are asked to send letters to the editor to their local paper, describing their health care challenges. Some are joined with a videographer (professional or volunteer) to record their story. OFA has just released a gallery of these video testimonials, like the one above, featuring a Minneapolis woman named Kristen. Kristen has both a genetic polycystic kidney condition and a barebones health insurance plan. She pays for the plan, she says poignantly, as a "hedge against catastrophe."

Organizing for America's end game, of course, is to create a groundswell of local public pressure when the time comes for our senators and representatives to vote on or otherwise back health care reform legislation. Just the threat of that public pressure in the hands of Rahm Emanuel or congressional negotiators might be persuasive to some members of Congress, particularly ones soon up for re-election.

The likelihood that the House and Senate won't consider until after the August recess has thrown a wrench in Organizing for America's "Health Care Reform Week of Action." That burst of activity was meant to coincide with a congressional vote that Organizing for America had internally predicted would come in late July. But Foster sees opportunity in the delay. "Now the game goes to the field," said Foster. "And frankly, that's where we're the strongest."

One last note. Organizing for America is working with the micro-blogging company Tumblr, says Foster,to build an easy way for field organizers to report their activities into headquarters -- so that we myopic observers have no excuse for always fixating on what's happening inside the Beltway.