It was a humid yet windy day in Broward County, South Florida. My long pants and sleeves were becoming hostile towards me as I proceeded to slip off my shoes, don my borrowed headscarf, and set up shop just outside the modest mosque in Pembroke Pines. I waited patiently for prayers to end, hoping that my “Register to Vote” sign was placed in optimal eyesight of the female worshippers as they exited the prayer hall. All of my hope to expand the Florida electorate to help re-elect President Barack Obama was bundled in my mix of clipboards, voter registration forms, pens, and volunteer sign-up sheets. Just moments after the Imam wrapped up the Friday afternoon prayers, two young women wearing full hijab sauntered out. “Oh, I’ve been meaning to register to vote,” one of them said. “Perfect.”
Though I registered Muslim women at a mosque that day, this was not my primary job as a field organizer for Obama’s 2012 grassroots re-election campaign. In fact, my two months working for Organizing for America in Broward County weren’t nearly as glamorous, or seemingly effortless. Anyone who has worked on a similar campaign knows that the long hours and endless days are full of good old fashioned phone calling, door knocking, and coffee drinking. But what makes the machine of a campaign run is not in the hands of the staff – it’s in the work, dedication, and, dare I say, creed of its volunteers.
As this post is my first semi-formal writing about my experience as a field organizer, I have about a hundred ideas and emotions coming to the fore. There is, however, one aspect of the campaign that not only deserves attention, but I think will be appreciated by those that read and follow issues of feminism and religion. I want to talk about a particular constituency of volunteers who embody the meaning of grassroots organizing. They are women, they are political, and they go to church. These women may not identify as such, but I found that an overwhelming majority of my most frequent, resilient, and dedicated volunteers were African-American and Caribbean women who were highly involved in their religious organizations – mainly black churches.
As many political commentators have pointed out during and since the election, Mitt Romney’s campaign didn’t know what hit them. The sheer (wo)man power involved in the fight to re-elect the President conjured up military language whenever the press spoke of the Obama campaign. We were “soldiers,” who “marched” in “battleground states.” We had “armies” of canvassers and phone bankers. But my soldiers looked like middle-aged Jamaican women who spent Sunday after Sunday registering voters in their churches. These so-called armies were made up of individual women who knocked on their neighbors doors after Saturday and Sunday prayers. They rallied their fellow friends of faith to go vote early as part of a “Souls to the Polls” effort.
It is neither secret nor distant memory that black churches had an overwhelmingly prominent role in the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a reformer, an activist, and brilliant speaker, but he was above all a minister. The inextricable link between faith and social reform continues to ride the political wagon, and it now carries a diverse array of progressive theologies. But it wasn’t theology that woke me up Sunday mornings to meet my volunteer at a gas station to sign out voter registrations forms that she took to church. It was a mutual understanding of the power of organizing. And if there’s one thing American religion is about, it’s organizing.
The female volunteers in faith communities not only understood that organizing was the medium to fight for the re-election of their President. It was the recognition that, as women, their most personal and important possession was at stake: their bodies. For many Obama supporters, this campaign was about fighting for the middle class, social security, healthcare, even foreign policy. But for the majority of women, it was also about protecting the right to decide what was best for their reproductive health. Many of my volunteers, I would imagine, understood that they were crucial in ensuring a vote for Obama within their personal demographic. In this election, the female faith vote mattered.
As a field organizer, you have little time to do anything, much less find out the personal narratives of your volunteers. And yet, the thing that kept my blood pumping was in the details. Many of the women I worked had full-time jobs, kids, and volunteered with several organizations. However, the fight to re-elect their President was so important to them because they felt personally affected by him. Whether it was a story about a home abortion, or about a child with cancer who had to fight the healthcare system, Barack and Michelle Obama were, at times, the answer to their prayers.
I always regarded political campaigns as miniature versions of new religious movements – popping up in the heat of a cause and eventually subsiding after the fire dies down. The Godhead is the campaign manager, the ritual is the door knocking and phone-calling, and the creed is the platform. But there is something seamlessly similar in these institutions, perhaps akin to the idea that the “medium is the message.” That medium is grassroots organizing, and the religious women in this campaign contributed enormously to the success of it – not just by giving their time, but by believing me when I explained the importance of organizing. And I was (literally) preaching to the choir.
Note: I borrowed the title of my post from Jeffrey Stout’s groundbreaking book, Blessed Are The Organized. I respect Stout’s pragmatism and aim to work towards his belief in the power of religious organization towards progressive causes. Also, Happy Thanksgiving!
Amy Levin completed her M.A. in Religious Studies at New York University with a focus on American religious liberalism. She aids in development and consulting for World Faith, an interfaith organization dedicated to dialogue through action. She hopes to organize the religious left.
Categories: Activism, Black Feminism, Christianity, civil rights, Community, Contraception, Feminism, Politics, Race and Ethnicity, Reproductive Justice, The Black Church, Women and Community, Women in the Church, Women's Rights