Learning on the campaign trail

It’s been over a year and a half since I last stepped foot on Williams campus. This past year, I was abroad taking part in the Williams-Exeter Programme at Oxford. Then I made a last-minute decision to take fall semester off to work on the Obama campaign in Pennsylvania. It was probably the best and most “whoa, I have a better sense of who I am now” sort of decisions that I’ve made to date.

Why? Because the Obama campaign wasn’t just a political campaign; it was a renewal of the American bottom up, “let us make civil society more inclusive” tradition. I was able to fight for the candidate that I think our country needs right now. But moreover, I saw an amazing transformation of political participation on the ground in many little appreciated sectors of society. That will forevermore change how I look at my Williams career, what groups I’ll take part in and which classes I’ll take.

The real result of working on the Obama campaign, with its emphasis on being respectful, inclusive and empowering for folks at every level, was its making me ask time and again with each choice I make, “How’s this going to help me change what needs changing in our world?” A campaign that leaves folks not simply seeing electoral success as the opportunity to step up the chain of political campaigners, but rather as that stepping stone towards becoming a person who can do something really beneficial for us all – that’s a campaign that is not only a political contribution but a public service for our country.

My journey began in July in the “red since 1968” state of Indiana. I worked in the Obama friendly city of Indianapolis. When I first arrived, I’d ride buses around the city, registering folks to vote. I’d wear an Obama pin, hope that the bus driver was sympathetic to our cause and bring one or two clipboards with registration forms along. Some people were annoyed as heck with me asking them if they were registered to vote time and again. But I would consistently register 15 to 50 people riding a few rounds.

Overall, I was impressed with the warmth of the strangers aboard the buses. Many folks I registered admitted that they never before voted because, as they saw it, the state always went Republican and their vote under the electoral system would never affect the outcome. Eventually the climate changed, and when people saw Obama offices moving into town, where national Democrat candidates never campaigned, they started believing that their vote might matter.

The highs I felt on the Obama campaign happened every time I saw civil society widen its circle of actors. I remember walking home from the Obama office in downtown Indianapolis and seeing a crowd of women sitting on a parking lot curbside, perfect targets for voter registration … I detoured from my usual path home and approached the women with clipboard in hand. They looked curiously at me, and I quickly asked if anyone needed to register to vote. Several of the girls laughed and one took a big puff of her cigarette and said, “We can’t vote. We’re criminals.” I realized this was a group of women on smoke break at a work-release shelter. Quickly, I made sense of the situation and responded, “No you can! In Indiana, you can vote as long as you are not a felon currently incarcerated.” Suddenly, the women were saying, “Hey, I wanna vote!” and “Why didn’t they tell us that when we got out we could vote again?” I promised to research the matter further and return. Two days later, back on the curbside smoking point, I registered the eligible voters who were so positive and energized.

In mid-August, I was offered a paid position in Philadelphia. Two days after hearing the offer, I purchased a flight to Philly and the next day informed my parents. I became a “Field Organizer” in West Philadelphia, responsible for voter turnout in two political wards. I had less time to ride buses and register voters, but I saw it happen through others. The job was incredibly demanding and stressful. Superiors made sure staff understood that if we f—-ed things up in Philly, we could lose Pennsylvania and ultimately the national election. Such pressure is different from that of a final exam or important interview. It’s not just your tail that’s at stake. It’s the future of every toddler that walks out of McDonalds, every aging man on the bus and every high school student soon to graduate.

Forevermore, I’ll see the Obama campaign as one of the most inclusive campaigns in history, and with so much at stake. The Obama campaign became more purposeful than I expected and brought me to a higher conscious as I return to Williams. I’m unsure of how I’ll translate my renewed faith in grassroots politics into my life on campus. I’m ready for more academics and activity, but I’m going to have to work out the difference between educating the self to an individualistic end and educating the self to a higher end.

Emma Davenport ’09 is a political science and Spanish major from Bertha, Minn.