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Respect, Empower, Include, Unfriend? The Story of One Disillusioned Obama Organizer [UPDATED]

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, January 6 2010

Marta Evry is a 45-year-old film editor who works on television shows and movies in Hollywood. She took off six months in 2008 to volunteer full time on the Obama campaign, ultimately working as a Regional Field Organizer for CA-36. Along with her co-RFO, she ran many dozens of phone banks for Obama from August 2008 to election day, managing some 1,500 volunteers who made over 500,000 phone calls to swing states all over the country. Since then she has remained active as a community organizer, running the blog Venice for Change, and working on everything from health care reform, to marriage equality to California budget issues. She is also a delegate to the CA State Democratic party and a life-long Democrat. Until this summer, she was working with Organizing for America. No longer.

A few days ago, she read my Obama Disconnect essay and wrote me to say: "The thing I find completely heartbreaking about is to watch such an opportunity squandered right before our eyes. I literally watched it happen. When I look back to how eager our vol[unteer]s were this time last year, those sea of faces in both Denver in 2008 and the Inauguration in January and know that whatever movement there was is gone, gone, gone."

This afternoon, she read OFA deputy director Jeremy Bird's encomium to OFA's first year, which he posted on Huffington Post, and noticed that he had included a link to it on his Facebook page. Since she and he were friends on Facebook, she posted a comment, venting her frustration. It read, in part, "OFA as an organization has been a profound disappointment, but the volunteers are not, and the contacts and relationships that came out of the campaign have been amazing." Not long after, Bird unfriended her, disappearing her comment. [UPDATE: See below: Bird has refriended Evry.] (The full text is on her blog, which also inspired the title to this post.)

This is her story.

I first heard from Marta on February 4, 2009, when she wrote us here at techPresident. Her email was titled, "Obama's Stimulus plan will fail if we sit around waiting for OFA." She wrote:

Tuesday night I was on the first conference call with Organizing For America, I, along with thousands of other former Obama campaign volunteers, expected to get our marching orders.

But that didn't happen. Instead, we heard about house parties for the weekend and future conference calls. Building blocks for the future - yes. But action for the here and now? No.

I'm done waiting.

I've started a FaceBook group called "We Are The Change". So far, we've amassed nearly 500 members in the last 12 hours.

It's goal is simple. To create enough public pressure on our elected officials so that we end up passing an effective stimulus bill, and not a Frankenstein's monster. It's being reported that the stimulus bill as is won't pass the Senate. That means the measures that will actually stimulate the economy will be gutted in favor of useless, but popular, tax cuts. We need to get moving.

I will be holding a house party on Saturday (time TBA) and we'll be phone banking to get citizens in North Carolina to put pressure on their Republican Senator. I am not waiting for direction or permission from OFA. I am just doing it.

Marta Evry
Community Organizer
www.veniceforchange.com

I reported on that conference call back at the time, and noted various measures of continuing enthusiasm and interest in the future of Obama's grassroots movement. Obama's announcement of the creation of OFA had garnered 500,000 views on YouTube; his announcement of Mitch Stewart as the group's director garnered 300,000. Clearly there was a lot of interest in what would happen next, and how to pitch in.

At the same time, Marta's message also showed that people were anxious to get moving, fearful that Obama's first major legislative effort to pass the economic stimulus package was being whittled down by "centrists" in Congress, and ready to act in support of the President without waiting for permission or marching orders. In a week, the We are the Change group grew to more than 2,500 members on Facebook. Marta told me,

For the record, I absolutely DO support OFA. But they're not nimble enough yet to deal with this. They're in it for the long haul, as they should be, and are very carefully laying the ground work. But I see this stimulus bill withering before our eyes with no direct action being called for by the leadership. I mean, for god's sake, it's not like we don't know how to do this. I was a regional field organizer in California, and our group ran two dozen phone banks and made over half a million calls during the general election. Just gives us lists and script and set us loose.

For all Marta's independence, she clearly was also a trusted OFA organizer. Indeed, when I started poking around a possible story involving an activist who had been kicked off the myBO platform--it turns out this person was probably mentally unstable--OFA's deputy director Jeremy Bird specifically suggested I talk to Marta, who was in the middle of the situation, to get a clear understanding of what was going on. And We are the Change was a loyal footsoldier in Obama's putative army. As the group's information page shows, for months it was completely focused on pushing the President's agenda.

At the same time, Marta was busy on the California front, as the state was in the midst of its own bitter budget battle. Along with another activist named Laura Velkei, she made this powerful video, which was used by the Courage Campaign to rally Californians against proposed budget cuts. Many of the people who appear in it were Obama organizers from California:

In August, Marta was emailing the 2500 people on the We are the Change list, along with her friends in Venice for Change, to turn out at local congressional townhall meetings on health care. But she was also getting frustrated with OFA, feeling the group was too constrained, and turning toward other, feistier groups like FireDogLake and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee to fight for reform. What was the problem? She told me:

"They had us calling into districts of lawmakers who were already on board with the [health care reform] bill just to list build." That was one strike. "I ended up partnering with the Courage Campaign to get lists and call into Blue Dog districts in CA instead." Another strike came in September, around President Obama's health care speech to Congress. At the time, she wrote on FireDogLake:

To this day I still tear up when I remember how, at the end of Camp Obama [the campaign's intensive training program for its best volunteer organizers], our facilitator told everyone in the room to close their eyes and envision Obama and his family on January 20 – to envision Michelle and her girls as they stood to watch their father take the oath of office. And I can tell you, when I was there on the Mall and watched it happen for real, it was all I could do not to break down.

But whatever alchemy created this understanding during the campaign has all but vanished in the last few months. I know so many OFA staff and volunteers who do everything they can to keep this spirit alive, but it’s not really coming from Obama anymore. The arguments for health care, even the pledges OFA asks constituents to sign – contain not one whiff of emotional truth. Even the health care horror stories collected by OFA have been stripped of their emotion, filed away to be trotted out in mild DNC ads or handed over to congressional members. These stories need to be used, repeated, and ritualized for the entire country – they need to become our nation’s emotional truth.

That is not happening. Instead the administration is pushing policy arguments, lists of ideas, pieces of paper. And they shrivel and die next to Sarah Palin’s Baby Trig and the reptile fear of people clinging desperately to whatever they have left after a brutal recession.

So here we are. What now?

Well, if Obama really does punt on the public option, it will be a disaster for him and for us. And not because of policy. No, this will be our Waterloo moment because emotional truth and actual truth will collide.

A third strike for Marta was seeing OFA whip its supporters around the House health care bill after the Stupak amendment was attached to it. The Stupak amendment, which came very late in the House debate on the health care bill, was decried by pro-choice activists, a core Democratic constituency, for how it may undermine insurance policies that cover abortion. But Marta was outraged by an email that went out from the state's OFA director, specifically telling volunteers not to mention the Stupak amendment in their phone calls shortly before the House vote.

For Marta, the last straw is being defriended by Jeremy Bird for questioning the rosy picture he paints of OFA's first year. "Tell me how responsive we can expect OFA to be to it's organizers if it's leadership is this thin-skinned," she writes. But she took pains to make sure I also noted this: the connections and relationships she made with other activists in the Obama campaign continue to bear political fruit.

Over the summer, I was able to organize my own phone banks targeting the constituents of CA Blue Dog Dems on health care reform, completely independent of OFA, with the help of former Obama organizers and new volunteers who didn't want to list build for OFA. We made over 10,000 phone calls to Costa and Cordoza's districts in central CA. Calls that OFA didn't even start making until the Fall. More recently, we were phone banking against the Stupak amendment. Again, with former Obama organizers.

The movement from the election through OFA is gone, but there's another one - smaller, more tentative - rising from the ashes of the old one. The bigger problem is there's no other large orgs like MoveOn or DFA really picking up on this and running with it. The smaller orgs like FDL PAC and PCCC are ad hoc and completely dependent on the whims of their founders. There's a lot of activity, but very little forward momentum. It's all triage and no planning. So yes, it's frustrating.

Nobody knows where to go from here. How do you constructively push an administration you helped elect that isn't always working for the agenda you want? And do it effectively with extremely limited resources?

UPDATE: After her blog posting yesterday, Marta got a call from Jeremy Bird. She tells me: "He's asked to re-friend me and said the un-friending was a 'mix up' by a staffer. We had a brief discussion, most of it off the record. Let's say we agreed on some things, disagreed on others. I don't see the conversation significantly changing my view of OFA, but I hopefully was able communicate to him that my criticism is meant to be constructive. And, hopefully, this will open the door to more communication."

Ditto.