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Organizing for America: "A Start-up With the Assets of Google"

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, December 16 2013

OFA's Jon Carson addressing RootsCamp 2013 (Photo by Roshni Karwal)

To hear Jon Carson tell it, Organizing for America, the continuation of President Obama's massive 2012 political machine, was nothing but a one-man shop on January 20, 2013, just him sitting "in a Potbellies restaurant" near the White House charting out its future. Except for one thing. "We were a start-up that inherited the assets of Google."

That is, as Carson, OFA's executive director, made clear at an open session last Friday morning at RootsCamp 2013, OFA isn't really a start-up at all, just a new bottle for all the campaign's old wine. And a much smaller bottle at that. For while OFA did inherit digital assets like the @barackobama Twitter account and its massive email list, it had to start from scratch raising money to pay for a staff and figure out what kind of role it could play as a loyal handservant to Obama in a post-campaign setting.

According to Sara El-Amine, OFA's organizing director, who also spoke at the session, the group has raised a little more than $18 million in 2013 from 308,000 individual donors giving an average of $59 each. That's allowed OFA to hire staff in 26 states that service 454 local chapters, building on the infrastructure of the neighborhood teams bequeathed from the campaign.

More interesting is how OFA has decided to position itself in the progressive firmament, as one-part local media operation and one-part local training network. "Our main goal," El-Amine declared, "is to change the conversation on issues." To that end, it has focused much of the year on "days of action" on particular issues like health care and the environment, all aimed at generating local news to influence specific Congress members and their constituents. And by "local" OFA means, TV market. For example, El-Amine declared, "we have 'media market chapters' all over Missouri."

OFA's strategy is designed to make the most of a much smaller hand. In Florida, Carson noted, "we have five staff; during the campaign we had 800." As a result, OFA, he said, can't do "mass action" like voter mobilization or registration, but it can do local actions and other press events aimed at getting on the local news.

"At the chapter level we really focus on press," El-Amine said. "We hit members of Congress where they are listening. A phone call is like cutting down a tree in an empty forest. A local press clip is like cutting down a tree and everyone is watching."

At the same time, Carson noted that OFA still had a big role to play in training the next generation of progressive organizers, and in keeping the extensive network of people who have been through an OFA or Obama campaign training involved. "We are still bringing new people into this movement," he declared, noting that they had received 10,000 applications for their spring organizing fellows program. To engage more of them, OFA is hiring 63 extra staff for three months, which will allow to train more than a thousand new fellows, just in time for them to go on the political campaign market in late spring 2014.

Carson thinks this model of targeted local media work and ongoing organizer training is a smart way to build on OFA's most tangible assets, and I suspect he is right. "The president's brand will bring people into advocacy for a long time," he declared. "And the [OFA] alumni network will be there for a long time too."

For most of the 150 or so people at the OFA session, this description of its structure and goals seemed satisfactory. Indeed, it won best session in a straw poll of attendees. But one online organizer who attended the session and walked out at the end with me was not enthused. "Well, they're not Heritage Action," he said, referring to the 400,000 member grassroots network that has dragged the conservative calculus further to the right with in-your-face attacks on Members of Congress. "And they lost on background checks," this person added. "You'd think the White House would want a group pressuring it from the left and creating more space for better deals."

In theory, maybe, with some White House. But this White House has made clear that's the last thing it wants. Thus the latest incarnation of OFA may be the smartest one. It's not promising to pass the President's agenda or change the way Washington works; it's just trying to give its members something useful to do back home and pass on its organizing skills to the next generation. Someone else will have to figure out how to convert that into something bigger.

Below, Carson's "Ignite" speech at RootsCamp 2013 describing the growth of OFA's organizing fellows program: