“This campaign can’t only be about me.”
A look back at the 2007 announcement in Springfield and the campaign that inspired so many to serve.
Fifteen years ago today, President Obama traveled to Springfield, Illinois, to announce his campaign for president. Standing before 17,000 people in front of the Old State Capitol where Abraham Lincoln once served, then-Senator Obama laid out the stakes for the 2008 election, the challenges he planned to confront in office, and his vision for the campaign that followed.
“This campaign can’t only be about me,” he said. “It must be about us. It must be about what we can do together.”
Over the next 21 months, more than one million people would sign up to volunteer for Obama for America. Working together, staff, organizers, and volunteers built an organization that stretched across all fifty states and ultimately led to Barack Obama – a freshman senator and only the third Black person elected to the Senate since Reconstruction – being elected president with more votes than any candidate in American history. That’s a story we’ll be proud to tell at the Obama Presidential Center—and one that continues to inspire our mission today.
But as historic as that campaign was, what was even more impressive was what followed. So many former volunteers and staff who became civically engaged for the first time through the 2008 campaign stayed involved. They went on to serve in government, or found nonprofits, or find ways to serve their community. Many still draw inspiration from their experience as a testament to what we can accomplish when we’re willing to roll up our sleeves and work in common cause with others.
15 years ago in Springfield, Senator Obama called on Americans to “take up the unfinished business of perfecting our union.” Because that work is never finished, to mark the anniversary of that announcement, we talked to three nonprofit leaders in Chicago who got their start organizing on the 2008 campaign and continue to carry the baton forward today.
In 2007 Vanessa Waserman, a native of the South Side of Chicago, watched Barack Obama’s announcement speech on TV from her grad school apartment in Moorhead, Minnesota. Despite having no political aspirations, she was inspired to move back to Dubuque, Iowa, where she had attended college, and become a field organizer on Obama’s Iowa Caucus effort.
“I was finishing up graduate school with intentions of pursuing a career in higher education when I joined the Obama campaign in June 2007. What I thought would be a short detour in my plans turned into six years and made a lasting impact on my life. I have so many great campaign memories, but what inspired me the most was the sense that I was a part of a community of people who cared about each other and the world around them.
“Every day on the Obama campaign I would witness an amazing act of pure kindness, generosity, and humanity. The supporter housing volunteers who hosted campaign staffers; the comfort captains who delivered meals to campaign offices; the volunteers who tirelessly knocked doors and made phone calls — being a part of this amazing community of people made me more intentional about how I live. Working on the campaign was a special, once-in-a-lifetime experience that fueled my passion for service and is part of why I do mission-driven work today.”
Vanessa went on to organize in four states over the course of the 2008 campaign, later joining the Obama administration as an appointee before returning to Chicago to work on the re-election. Today, she lives in Chicago and works as an executive with After-School All-Stars, a nonprofit that provides free after school programs for low-income kids.
In February 2007 Chris was working an investment banking job in New York City, when he watched President Obama’s speech in Springfield on television. He later traveled to Chicago to attend “Camp Obama” before moving to South Carolina as an unpaid intern.
“Within weeks of being in South Carolina I knew the trajectory of my life had been forever changed. Watching the staff and volunteers I met there working together in service of a shared vision for their communities and this country made the power of organizing clear to me. Sitting with people from so many backgrounds, listening to them share stories and ultimately build neighborhood teams to motivate their community to turn out to vote….it shook me in a profound way.
“One day we set up this training in Columbia, South Carolina and I remember this moment looking around the room and seeing hundreds of people from across the state who were volunteer leaders, ready to turn out their communities. The summer before had been thousands of one on one conversations that built to all of these volunteers driving to the state Capitol—not to see Obama, but to talk about how they were going to deliver their neighborhoods. That was something very few people thought it was possible when we started.
“When we succeeded on primary night in South Carolina it was one of the most moving nights of my life. The experience left me committed to spending my life trying to do work with organizing at the center. It’s shaped every job I’ve had since, including my current one, which is all about working with communities to address issues of access and education to the COVID vaccines, especially communities of color who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. I still trace a lot of the approach and inspiration for that work back to my experience in 2007 and 2008.”
Since the 2008 campaign, Chris has gone on to work in the White House, and recently served as Deputy Programs Director at the Obama Foundation. Today, he is Executive Director of the Civic Nation initiative Made to Save, a national public education and grassroots mobilization effort to build trust in the COVID-19 vaccines and increase access for communities of color whose health inequities have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Despite majoring in political science, Jennifer Warner had never volunteered on a campaign until 2008 when she attended a community meeting of Obama volunteers in South Bend, a few months before the Indiana primary.
“I had seen stories about people in other states going to Iowa to knock doors for then-Senator Obama for the caucuses. I thought that was the strangest thing—but the more I heard of him the more I wanted to do something to help. I went to barackobama.com and ended up finding a neighborhood meeting hosted by volunteers who had downloaded the grassroots manual from the website—a basic organizing toolkit.
I started going to different parts of the city with other volunteers to register voters. It took me to parts of the community where people would say to me ‘no one’s ever asked for my vote before.’ Eventually staff showed up and I realized people were paid to do this work.”
Jennifer eventually moved to Southwest Michigan and became a field organizer for the general election. “It was very out of character. I quit my job. I had a house and a wife. But I packed up and moved for this. I was assigned to an area that included Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, Michigan, two communities that were racially and economically segregated from each other. A lot of my experience in that office was people coming in from each community and finding how much they had in common. That was so magical.
“Being an organizer taught me I had so much power—being able to talk with my neighbors and people I didn’t know about what we wanted to see in the world was so powerful. We usually think about power as something to hoard for yourself. What I realized from this was how impactful it is to share power, because there’s so much more you can accomplish working together. From there I was set—I didn’t want to do anything else after that.”
After the 2008 campaign, Jennifer spent several years working with Organizing for Action and on the 2012 re-election campaign. Today, she works as an executive at Stand for Children, a national education advocacy Chicago based non profit.