WEST LOOP | Intensive course gets volunteers fired up, turns them into activists
"The next tip is to be absolutely ruthless," Jocelyn Woodards tells the campers. "We want you to be determined, ambitious, take a risk."
No toasted marshmallows here. This is the second day of Camp Obama, a two-day (sometimes four-day) intensive training course in becoming an activist to help get Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) elected president.
"It's not enough for you to be a supporter of Barack. You have to go out and build an organization that will deliver votes for Barack Obama," Woodards tells the 40 campers -- most in their 20s -- from around the country gathered at the campaign's national headquarters in the West Loop.
Obama is not like other candidates, and part of this training is learning to mimic the methods he used before he was an elected official -- back when he was a community organizer in Chicago following the textbook of legendary agitator Saul Alinsky.
Rivals of Obama know that while he may at times appear to channel Martin Luther King Jr., his methods sometimes give evidence of his allegiance to Alinsky, who shunned starry-eyed idealists and recommended purging do-gooders from organizations. Alinsky wanted results. And his methods often forced the hands of elected officials.
It's not enough to want to help others, Woodards says. These campers need to focus on people's self-interests. What do they want? How can Obama help them?
"We want you to stop thinking about Barack Obama and be Barack Obama," she says.
"What do you want?" Woodards asks Katie Murphy, 30, of Bartlett. Since her son was born with a heart defect 10 months ago, Murphy has had to stay home to give him constant care and fight with the insurance company about what expenses are and are not covered. Murphy wants a better national health-care plan.
"I want my brother to come back from Baghdad," says Kris Kolky, 26, of Michigan, who just finished law school.
There are campers from Maine and California, African immigrants and a woman from Kentucky who was considering leaving the country as her job went non-union and her pay dropped from $12 to $10 an hour. They have paid their way to Chicago because they think Obama can be an agent of change.
Woodards, an Obama campaign staffer who used to work for the Democratic National Committee, tells the campers to break up into groups of two and spend 20 minutes at a time just listening to each other.
"Listening, listening, listening. Listening is the No. 1 tool," she says. They hold a mock Iowa caucus in which campers learn to try to lure other candidates' supporters to Obama during re-alignment periods.
Whether they are going on to Iowa or other early primary states or back to their home states or neighborhoods, they need to start pinpointing community leaders and clergy, and start building an actual organization, Woodards tells them.
Just about all the candidates' campaigns do some version of this volunteer training but others don't have the candidates' own backgrounds to draw on in mapping out the training regimen. Alinsky had been dead for a decade when Obama came to organize in Chicago in the '80s, but his disciples were here ready to train him as Woodards is ready to train the volunteers.
"The first thing I did when I came back to Arizona was to join a volunteer group called Arizonans for Obama," said Alice Cho, a graduate of a camp held here two weeks ago. She has been going to every informal Democratic gathering she can in her up-to-now very Republican state, passing out Obama buttons and trying to build relationships and a structure that will last beyond this election.