In November 2023, the Obama Foundation hosted its second Democracy Forum bringing together innovative leaders and creators to address some of the pressing issues facing our democracy. Our second Democracy Forum coincided with the 15th anniversary of President Obama’s 2008 election night victory, which was a perfect opportunity to get the band back together!
To celebrate, alumni Jesse Thomas and Representative Lauren Underwood joined Kal Penn and Jen Psaki on stage to talk about their work to continue to push progress forward.
Fresh to the campaign world, Jesse Thomas jumped in at Obama for America as a field organizer in New Hampshire, galvanized by the message of then-Senator Barack Obama and the potency of traditional and digital grassroots outreach.
“I started the campaign in New Hampshire, and we believed with all our hearts and souls that we were going to change the world. No one else did. But we put our hearts and souls into it.”
Very quickly, Jesse realized that the work being done to elect Senator Obama was more than a symbolic victory: it was a call to arms for people, centered on the message of hope.
“...They saw Barack win Iowa and they believed, sometimes more than we did. They saw him lose in New Hampshire, and then took it upon themselves to make sure he made it to the White House. Sometimes it felt like they were organizing us.”
For the next few months, Jesse organized in four more states, subsequently ending in Philadelphia as the Regional Field Organizer.
“I went from struggling to fill a house party to shutting down Philadelphia for thousands of people at a time to come see Bruce Springsteen or Jay-Z and Beyonce or Senator Obama like five or six times in a single day… I went from knocking hundreds of doors and making hundreds of phone calls a day for Mr. Rob Hill to commanding an army of thousands of volunteers, in one of America's largest cities, at the age of 24.”
Carrying the Baton Today
Following President Obama’s victory in 2008, Jesse continued to build as an organizer focused on digital mobilization. Through it all, Jesse credits his experience in 2008 as a formative moment in his career:
At age 19, Illinois native Lauren Underwood worked as an intern for then-Senator Barack Obama while working on her bachelors degree in nursing at the University of Michigan. From the beginning, Rep. Underwood was passionate about public service and committed to supporting her community, especially around health care. After finishing school, Rep. Underwood joined the Federal Government, eventually serving as Senior Advisor at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in 2014.
Carrying the Baton Today
After her time working for the Obama administration, Rep. Underwood continued to support communities across the country around accessible health care at the HHS, Next Level Health, and Georgetown University. But in 2017, Underwood decided to run for Congress after the then-incumbent of her district voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Following a whirlwind campaign, Underwood was elected to the House of Representatives, becoming the youngest Black woman to ever serve in Congress.
Rep. Underwood credits lessons she learned from the administration, as well as her fellow alumni, to her successful victory in 2018 and subsequent re-election.
“We've had some incredible help and it's come from the expertise [of alumni] that helped get us across the finish line...It's been a great joy to lean on these folks who hope and change.”
Today Rep. Underwood acknowledges that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to protect our democracy and promote democratic values around the world. Yet she looks towards the next generation—like those in the Obama Foundation programming network—to take up the mantle and bring forth change.