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Yes We Can: Taking Up The Baton 15 Years Later

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December 12, 2023
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“…So many of you are at the start of your careers . . . take the spirit, the culture of this campaign, and keep applying it not just to campaigns. That sense of possibility that you guys can do anything. That you can reimagine the world. That you can lead—not by trying to manipulate your way, or push somebody else out of the way, but instead lead through the force of your example.”

– President Barack Obama, Staff Ball Remarks, January 21, 2009

15 years ago this week, then-Senator Barack Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States. It was a watershed moment in our nation’s history, made possible by the work of millions of staff, volunteers, and supporters from around the country. The eight years of progress that followed were a direct result of that work, and a reflection of a belief that’s driven President Obama throughout his career: that ordinary people working together can achieve extraordinary things.

To mark 15 years since the 2008 election we checked in with alumni from the campaign to hear how the experience continues to inspire and shape them to keep pushing progress forward today.

Stephanie Reid is standing in grass with a country road behind her smiling. It is day time and sunny out. Stephanie is wearing a light blue sweater and blue denim jeans, and gray sneakers. On her shoulders are the straps of a dark blue baby carrier which is on her back. On her back is a male infant. The male infant had shaggy brown hair and a red jacket on.. He is looking directly into the camera. Standing in front of Stephanie is a female toddler, she has light brown hair and is wearing a pink bow in her hair, a pink ski jacket, pink pants, and white sneakers. Her face is partially covered by a sign being held by Stephanie. The sign is an “Obama 2008” sign. The sign’s background is dark blue, the text that reads “Obama 08” is white. Underneath “Obama 08” on the sign is the Obama 2008 campaign website, www.barackobama.com. On top of “Obama 08” is the Obama campaign logo.

Stephanie Reid

“Before Obama '08, I had never heard of community organizing. In retrospect, I had been organizing for most of my life but I didn't have a word for it. After the campaign, I knew that organizing was what I was meant to do.”

2008: Pennsylvania Field Organizer 2023: Director of External Affairs for the City of Philadelphia

Then

Inspired by President Obama’s message of hope, Leigh Valley, PA resident and mother of two Stephanie Reid decided to jump into the 2008 campaign as a volunteer. As a member of the aptly named group, Barack the Valley, Stephanie worked as a volunteer coordinator, organizing dozens of volunteer teams and hosting volunteer days ahead of primary.

Stephanie’s work on the 2008 Pennsylvania primary proved to be a pivotal turning point in her life: Shortly before the primary, Stephanie was contacted by PA field organizer Jen Cannistra about her future on the campaign and her natural-given talent as an organizer.

“…I told her that I loved being the volunteer coordinator and I was happy to keep doing that unless there was something else that they needed from me.

She replied, ‘No, I mean what do you want to do ON the campaign? You really should be staff.’

I sat across from her in disbelief. The Obama staffers were warriors. I had never seen people work so hard. How could I, a mom with two little kids, do that job? But Jen believed in me. And because she believed in me, I thought maybe I could do it.”

The Legacy

Stephanie’s conversation with Jen set the stage of her life for the next fifteen years. Soon after, she became an Obama Summer Organizing Fellow and subsequently a field organizer for Easton, PA and continued working in PA as a Regional Field Director in 2012. From there, Stephanie served at Organizing for Action and the City of Philadelphia, building relationships, mobilizing residents, and engaging the public around service and social justice. Stephanie credits her incredible work as a Pennsylvania organizer to the 2008 campaign that helped her solidify her passion and gave her the infrastructural knowledge to build her career.

“My life path was completely changed because someone believed in me and offered me an opportunity. I learned to never assume that people cannot or will not want to do something and I learned the value of understanding different perspectives and assuming best intentions.”

Vineeth Hemavathi, sits in the driver’s seat of a white pick-up truck smiling at the camera. He is wearing a blue t-shirt with red lettering that says “Barack Chalk Jayhawk.”' Next to him in the passenger seat of the white pick-up truck is a full scale cardboard cutout of Barack Obama. The image is of Barack Obama when he was an Illinois Senator. In the background of the pickup truck is an outdoor parking lot.

Vineeth Hemavathi

“I thought back to knocking on doors in the middle of winter in Iowa, and it made me believe that 15 years later I could do the same thing and win an election.”

2008: Field Organizer, Northeast Georgia and Kent State University 2023: Attorney for Massachusetts Fair Housing Center and Longmeadow, MA Select Board Member

Then

In 2007, Vineeth became an intern in the Obama Chicago Volunteer Headquarters, started a chapter of Students for Barack Obama at the University of Kansas, and headed to Iowa to volunteer ahead of the caucuses. Still, this wasn’t enough: in the summer of 2008, Vineeth decided to take a semester off from school and work as a fulltime field organizer on the ‘08 campaign in rural Georgia. The experience shaped Vineeth’s outlook on public service and his belief that change is possible despite seemingly insurmountable odds.

“The campaign had a deep impact on me as a 20-year-old kid. I organized northeast Georgia, which was a place where the KKK had a presence and where our volunteers received death threats for registering voters, it was not a place where it was easy to be a kid named Vineeth asking folks to vote for a guy named Barack. But despite all of that, I was able to make a difference.”

The Legacy

Following his time on the campaign, Vineeth jumped into a career in service. In addition to teaching at a low income school in Charlotte, North Carolina and working for survivors of domestic violence in Oklahoma City, Vineeth currently represents victims of housing discrimination in Western Massachusetts. Then in March 2023 Vineeth was elected to the Longmeadow, Massachusetts Select Board, becoming the first person of color ever elected to the town’s board Opens in a new tab .

“The principles of the 2008 campaign — Respect, Empower, and Include — were central to my campaign in 2023. I never would have taken the leap into elected office without everything I learned in '08.”

Beth Pollack is standing in an Obama campaign office smiling at the camera. Beth has very curly brown hair with gold highlights. She is wearing a black dress that hits above her knees, black lace tights, and black boots, with buckles, that end at her lower calf.  On both of her wrists are singular silver bracelets. Next to Beth is a life size cardboard cutout of Barack Obama. The cutout is an image of Barack Obama from the year 2007. In the cardboard cutout Barack Obama is wearing a black suit with red tie, black shoes, and is smiling at the camera. In the campaign office, there are two open wooden doors revealing two rooms. Inside the room on the right is darkness because the lights are off. Inside the room on the left are stacked boxes, a chair covered in coats, a refrigerator with a purple drink sitting on top of it, and a lone fork on the floor.

Beth Pollack

“Working on the Obama ‘08 campaign, I saw the impact and importance of campaign and community organizing first hand. After that, I knew that I wanted to work in public service and delve deeper into policy, and in particular health policy and health research.”

2008: Ohio Field Organizer 2023: Research Scientist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Then

In 2008, Beth Pollack made the life-changing decision to leave NYC and move to Ohio to help organize for Obama 2008. Inspired by the values of then-Senator Obama, Beth felt that this election would be the one to change our democracy for the better.

Moving to Ohio, Beth hit the ground running and met thousands of first time voters who were excited about diving into the political process. These conversations set Beth on a new path to specifically address the needs of people who felt ignored by larger political systems.

“In the campaign, we spoke with people in the community a lot about policy and what mattered to them. How would President Obama create change? What changes did they want to see? From climate change to healthcare, these conversations cemented and affirmed a personal deep interest in policy and work that could make an impact.”

The Legacy

Following the campaign, Beth returned to school with a clear purpose: healthcare and healthcare policy. Today, Beth studies infection-associated chronic illnesses Opens in a new tab – including Long Covid, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and chronic Lyme disease – at MIT in the Tal Research Group Opens in a new tab , where she leads research on the overlaps and commonalities across these illnesses.

“I became focused on health policy and biomedical research. Millions of people are sick with the chronic illnesses I study – including Long COVID – and we don’t have enough solutions. The illnesses I study have no official treatments yet. People might be surprised to know that my non-traditional background in policy and campaign organizing helps support my work. Working on the Obama campaign taught me how to be a better communicator and public speaker; It taught me how to build effective research collaborations and coalitions bringing together different groups of people who share key points of interest; it also taught me how to effectively advocate for supporting certain types of research to fill in knowledge gaps in the field, and to advocate for more research funding.”

Cynthia L. Dorsey, a Black woman man with a deep skin tone, smiles with no teeth at the camera. She has long box braids, one braid has a beige lanyard around its length, she is wearing a black and orange shirt with hints of a blue graffitied pattern at the bottom. The back of the photo behind her is obscured.

Cynthia L. Dorsey

“I learned the power of collective voice and the importance of ‘hope’ in practice rather than just in words.”

2008: Campaign Volunteer, Obama 2008, Washington D.C. 2023: Tony Award nominee, founder and artistic director of SoulFLY Theatre Society

Then

Artist and activist Cynthia Dorsey started as a staff assistant in President Obama’s U.S. Senate Office. Affectionately dubbed “Phone Diva,” Cynthia took her prowess for constituent engagement and began working as a canvassing volunteer out of the campaign’s D.C. office. Speaking with thousands of voters gave Cynthia a firsthand look at the power of collective action and the importance of creating spaces for people who feel unheard and underrepresented.

“Hearing the stories of various people from all walks of life during the '08 campaign influenced me to create opportunities where historically silenced voices could be heard and shared with the world.”

The Legacy

Inspired in part by her experience in 2008, Cynthia now serves as the creator and executive director of SoulFly Theater Society Opens in a new tab . There, she produces work that showcases the stories of women of color and provides high quality arts education workshops and training. On the stage and behind the scenes, Cynthia credits her steadfast commitment to equity, inclusivity, and visibility as a legacy of the 2008 experience.

“My work in 2008 pushed me to fearlessly go forth towards manifesting my dreams. Overall, I developed a "let's go change the world" mentality and I attribute that to my time spent on the campaign."

Clarissa Unger, a woman with a light skin tone, faces front while smiling at the camera; her hair is a golden dark blonde and she has a pair of black sunglasses on her head. She is wearing a white long-sleeved t-shirt, in her hand she is carrying a clipboard and a small sign that says, “Kansas for Obama behind her is a brown-skinned man also smiling into the picture, he is wearing a beige suede jacket with a black shirt underneath, on his lapel is an Obama for Kansas button. The overall background of the picture is an outdoor rally.

Clarissa Unger

“As a young girl from a small, rural town in Northwest Kansas, my experience with the Obama '08 campaign showed me that I had something to offer my country.”

2008: Kansas Deputy State Director & State Coordinator for Students for Barack Obama 2023: Co-Founder & Executive Director, Students Learn Students Vote Coalition

Then

Clarissa got her start organizing for Barack Obama as a student volunteer. Searching for something impactful to sink her teeth into, Clarissa began to serve as the state coordinator of Kansas Students for Barack Obama, mobilizing hundreds of students across the state to travel to Iowa and New Hampshire ahead of the 2008 primaries. Her work engaging college students changed the trajectory of her life: her talent and passion for civic engagement led her to serve as Kansas Deputy State Director for the 2008 campaign and to become one of the youngest delegates at the 2008 Democratic National Committee Convention from Kansas.

The Legacy

Since then, Clarissa has built a career focused on empowering and investing in our next generation of leaders. Following her time as the Development Coordinator for Robert. J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas, Clarissa went on to found the Students Learn Students Vote Coalition Opens in a new tab , the largest nonpartisan network in the United States dedicated to increasing college student voter participation.

“Being a part of the Obama 2008 campaign was so transformative for me. Now I spend every day working to help students across the country have a voice in our elections through the Students Learn Students Vote Coalition.”

Eric Waldon is a bald man with a light-medium skin tone who smiles with teeth at the camera. He is wearing a light blue button down shirt, denim jeans, with a brown braided belt, and a steel watch. On his shirt is a pin that reads, “Waldo for Obama.”  has a blue sticker on with obscured words, and around his neck are two lanyards. In the picture, Eric has his arm wrapped around a woman: she has dark hair, a light-medium skin tone, is of East Asian descent, and is wearing glasses. Her shirt is white and sleeveless with a woven pattern across the top of the shirt. She is also wearing two lanyards; on the lanyards is a “Waldo for Obama'' button. Eric and the woman are posing in a campaign office, surrounded by blue signs, computers, a fax machine, and a tv off in the distance. One of the signs reads, “North Carolina Poll Times''

Eric Waldo

“My choice to work on the campaign transformed my life and career. I had an offer to work at a big NYC law firm, which I turned down to take the unpaid legal internship role in September of 2007 in Chicago.”

2008: Legal Team, Obama 2008 2023: President & CEO of the DC-College Access Program

Then

For Eric Waldo, not working on the 2008 campaign was never an option. After finishing up a federal clerkship, Eric was offered a position at a prestigious law firm in New York City. Instead he turned it down, and moved to Chicago to work as a legal intern on the campaign. His passion and tenacity paid off: following Super Tuesday, Eric was promoted Deputy Staff Counsel doing FEC compliance and voter protection work for the Midwest and Western pod states.

“My role was a bit of everything: voter protection, contracts, leases, boiler rooms for volunteer lawyers for primary days, everything under the sun. I even had to check out what was a new service at the time, Hulu, to get a contract to place political ads!”

The Legacy

It’s safe to say that the 2008 campaign changed the trajectory of Eric’s life. Eric went on to serve as the Deputy Chief of Staff for the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan and worked at the White House, leading First Lady Michelle Obama’s college access and success initiative, Reach Higher. Best of all: Eric met his wife – another 2008 alum – while on the campaign trail in Chicago.

Today, Eric has taken the wisdom, knowledge, and values he learned from his experiences within the Obama campaign and administration to lead the DC College Access Program, a non-profit that helps students achieve their full potential in higher education.

“I know that we [campaign staffers] showed what was possible in terms of motivating people around hope, positivity, and the possible. That was, and is, such a powerful tonic and motivator. It taught me so much about how young, motivated, and empowered people really can change the world.”

More Stories from the 2008 Obama Campaign

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