Cross-posted at Future Majority.
Yes, Barack Obama went through his own troubling youth identity-crisis. He has openly admitted he inhaled; he’s been wasted and hung-over more than once in his youth; and he often found himself feeling lost and uncertain about his identity and his ultimate place within the world. But that’s not the youth identity-crisis we’re talking about here. (For the engaging story about this first one, check out Obama’s autobiography Dreams from My Father.)
Barack Obama has another youth identity-crisis taking place today: within his unprecedented youthroots movement. The Obama youth movement is by far largest and most energetic of all the 2000 presidential campaigns. Currently the national student network Students for Barack Obama (SFBO) is the official student wing of the Obama campaign, but as Barack Obama continues to rally young Americans from all sectors of the broad youth demographic with his fresh spirit and generational call-to-action, the question is arising as to how best to integrate this rapidly growing movement into the most effective and efficient structure that can accommodate the broadest number of young Americans—students and non-students, youth activists and young professionals, and the countless other youth and young adults who are ready to change our nation and transform the world.
It should be noted that having a youth identity-crisis is not at all a bad thing. On the contrary, it’s a positive sign that a significant change and new growth is underway. Identity crises are a natural process that every person, organization, or movement goes through to differing degrees as they expand their sense of self into a larger and more complex world. It is often a time of intensive searching, exploration, and experimentation as one decides upon the identity they want to take into the wider world.
The Obama campaign’s youth identity-crisis is a quest for its greater structure and collective identity, one that will transcend and include its earlier developmental stages, and that will ultimately allow it to organize young Americans more powerfully, broadly, and successfully.
The History of a Movement
So what’s the situation? Here’s a short history. Americans have been excited about Senator Barack Obama’s entrance onto the national political stage since his electrifying speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Ever since that now historical moment, people having been watching his rise in political stature with the greatest of expectations, sensing that our country was beginning to witness a new generation of leadership come of age, and that Barack Obama was leading the way.
Young people most especially were inspired by his fresh style and infectious charisma, and as Obama entered the Senate and continued to maintain a high-profile status in the media, many sensed the strong potential for a future Obama presidency. In fact, some were so convinced of this potential that in July of 2006, a Facebook group was created by a Bowdoin College student named Meredith Segal asking other students to support a 2008 Barack Obama Presidency, long before Obama had even announced his candicacy. Within only a few months time, while Obama was still talking over his decision to run with his wife Michele and was pledging to give up smoking, students were holding conference calls with other students from all across the nation beginning to strategize about the structure and goals of an already blossoming national grassroots network called Students for Barack Obama.
Fast forward to this past February when SFBO helped organize a large-scale student rally for Obama at George Mason University, and just a few months ago when their Facebook group had grown to over 65,000 members and local SFBO chapters were coming to life on campuses across the nation. The Obama campaign took notice. They recognized an extremely valuable asset to the success of their campaign and not surprisingly, they invited SFBO to become the official student wing of Obama for America.
Today Students for Barack Obama has established over 300 college chapters along with a growing network of high-school chapters. They are a clear testament to Obama’s widespread and increasing popularity among young Americans. And just as Students for Barack Obama was inspired to action by Obama’s candicacy, other groups have been springing up as well.
On Facebook—the leading social networking site used by students and youth— Obama’s largest online youth network is called 1 Million Strong for Obama. With over 322,000 members, this virtual network and platform has been the source of ongoing dialogues, information sharing, and significant campaign fundraising drives. One of their current projects is asking its members to sign online petitions encouraging their state officials and governors to support Obama’s candidacy.
Another group named Barack the Youth Vote is developing a national grassroots network working to mobilize young Americans to not only elect Obama to office in 2008, but to substantively pioneer a new generation of politics. They’ve compiled a book called The Obama Movement that includes essays by young people from all across the nation that will be published this coming fall. Along with an active blogging community, they also plan to launch creative get-out-the-vote drives, fundraisers, and innovative voter education projects.
Rock with Barack is another organization created by young Americans working to create grassroots enthusiasm, connect vision to action, and register new voters. Their highly creative website serves as another place for young people to learn about Barack Obama and support the campaign. They recently launched a project called “Your Voice” to register 10,000 new voters by January 1, 2008.
A fundraising event targeting young professionals called “Generation O” is being held later this month in Washington DC, bringing together the large young professional culture of DC to hear Obama speak in person. This event is certain to give rise to an ongoing “young professionals for Obama” network in our nation’s capitol, and other groups of young professionals across the nation are also beginning to come together.
All of these groups are still just the beginning, and with over 17 months left to go until election day, we can expect to see far more arising out of Obama’s unprecedented and still growing youthroots movement.
A Youth-Identity Crisis
Clearly Barack Obama has a rich and diverse youth movement rallying behind him, one that includes students on University campuses and at local high-schools, young professionals and working class youth, youth activists and legions of other young Americans who are ready to turn the page of History and engage in the project of national renewal. With such a wide diversity of youth supporters, the question arises: how can the Obama campaign integrate them all under a common banner while allowing each the greatest amount of self-organizing autonomy?
One of the largest issues at the center of this youth identity-crisis is the question of using “students” as the primary mode of the Obama campaign’s youth outreach. While student networks are a solid, reliable, and invaluable base to build upon, the fact is that there are far more young people of voting age who are not students than those that are, and they need to be reached out to and engaged just as much as students. If the Obama campaign focuses their youth-organizing efforts solely on “students,” they are missing out on the immense opportunity to mobilize a much broader and stronger youth coalition.
It’s a difficult and complex question regarding outreach to students vs. nonstudents. Students turn out more consistently to the polls than non-students, and they’re also easier to reach and organize as a whole. Using the directly targeting language of “Students for…” ensures a relatively strong and stable base amongst the youth voting bloc. But at the same time, there is an untapped source of creativity, energy, volunteers, fundraising, and new voters within the larger non-student youth population. Using broader and more inclusive language that can umbrella both students and non-students would be the most strategic way to reach out to both groups simultaneously, though the tactics and strategies for reaching each group will differ in some ways while overlapping in others.
With this being the case, should the Obama campaign attempt to create a broader and more inclusive structure and branding, or should they keep things as they currently are and let the other non-student groups self-organize on their own? This is the question that lies at the heart of the Obama campaign’s youth identity-crisis. All groups of young Americans need to be reached out to and supported as much as possible, and if the campaign can design a broad coalition that effectively includes the largest number of these groups, than it makes practical and strategic sense that this is the direction in which they would proceed.
Remembering Generation Dean
While Obama’s youthroots movement is unprecedented in the speed of its growth and the size of its expanding networks—part of which can be attributed to new technological tools such as Facebook and the campaign’s My.BarackObama.com—it’s not the first high-profile Presidential campaign to face such fundamental identity issues. The now famous Dean for America campaign went through a strikingly similar process with the structure and branding of its own youthroots movement
In its early history, a group of students at American University created Students for Dean and it quickly took off with chapters forming across the nation. Months later they were approached by the official Dean campaign and were brought on to be the official student-organizing wing. As their youthroots movement continued to grow and expand, they eventually chose to change their name to Generation Dean, a banner that was broad and inclusive enough to encompass students, young professionals, and working class youth all together in a unified movement.
Michael Whitney, one of the founders of Students for Dean and Generation Dean, recently shared with me why they made this important switch:
“We wanted to reach a broader coalition of young people in America and not just focus on 18-22 year olds, because when you lay on the “Students for…” label, it only appeals to people who self-identify as students. We wanted to open it up and erase the barriers between people—those who were possibly19 years old and still living at home, along with recent graduates and young professionals. We wanted to really allow for more self-organizing and a broader self-identity within the young people for Howard Dean.”
While students remained the largest youth population of the campaign with their national network of campus chapters, Generation Dean also included other dynamic groups of young professionals, working class youth, and youth activists that were invaluable players in the campaign’s pre-primary success.
The Quest for Integration
Looking back at history of the Dean campaign, it’s clear that using a broad and inclusive banner such as “Generation Obama” is one of the most promising paths to integrating Obama’s youthroots movement, but there are a number of other options that the campaign could choose to work with.
To keep it simple, they could keep Students for Barack Obama as their main source of youth outreach and let the other networks of young professionals and groups like Barack the Youth Vote operate independently on their own. They could also build some kind of youth alliance, and have three main sectors—SFBO, Young Professionals for Obama, and a group like Barack the Youth Vote that can speak to all types of young Americans—all working together under one integrated leadership team, though with separate names, networks, and relative autonomy. They could also try a simpler two-pronged approach, keeping name of SFBO and also bringing on another name such as “Generation Obama” to cover the important niche that SFBO is unable to. These are just a few options. There are of course many other possible combinations of both structure and branding.
While any of these options are workable and could prove to be effective in the long-term, the most promising strategy of them all seems to be for the Obama campaign to choose one overarching banner and structure that can accommodate all of these youth groups and youth identities together, while still allowing as much self-organizing autonomy as possible (this topic of ‘decentralization’ deserves another long article in itself). Using a banner like “Generation Obama” has the ability to forge a collective identity and bring coherence and solidarity to all branches of the broad Obama youthroots movement. While there would still be different networks and leadership within each branch of the coalition, as a whole they could more easily be connected and mobilized when needed to.
Such a change would necessarily require a bit of growth and restructuring on the upper end of things to accommodate the complementary networks—possibly a young professional coordinator, a student coordinator, and a broader youth coordinator—but the already existing network of SFBO could maintain its structure while other networks of young Americans and young professionals could easily be integrated into the campaign structure. While these changes would definitely take some initial time and energy to coordinate, with more than seventeen months until Election Day, creating an integrated movement of this nature would be the most promising and strategic step that the campaign could take.
Ultimately, what we’re asking is how best to build a youthroots movement for a 21st century presidential campaign, one that takes into account the increasing trend of youth participation in politics, along with the new structures and realities brought about by new media and an emerging participatory democracy. As those of us who are supporters of the Obama campaign work to create the most effective and efficient youthroots movement that will ensure Barack Obama makes it into the White House, we are also building the pathways that future campaigns and youthroots movements will continue to walk down.
As was stated at the beginning of this article, the Obama campaign’s current youth identity-crisis is an extremely positive sign that it is undergoing a passage to a more developed structure, strategy, and scope for its youth organizing. The issues addressed here are merely the natural growing pains that any large and burgeoning movement must go through, and the goal now is to find what will best serve the needs of the Obama campaign and its rapidly expanding youthroots movement. With it still being so early in the campaign season and with a youth movement that promises to expand to even greater numbers, this is the ideal moment for the Obama campaign to fully examine these issues and to design the structure and branding that will ensure the Obama youthroots movement remains a leading and dynamic part of the campaign’s overall success.
As this discussion continues to take place, what’s most important is for us not to forget is that this dialogue in itself is one of the most promising signs for Barack Obama: it shows that a “Generation Obama” including young people of every background is awakening all across America, filled with a passion and conviction to make History by building a movement the will help elect Barack Obama as the next President of the United States.
Obama himself once declared, “Each generation is beckoned anew, to fight for what is right, and strive for what is just, and to find within itself the spirit, the sense of purpose, that can remake a nation and transform the world.” Barack Obama’s campaign is clearly becoming a vehicle for a new active and engaged generation to do just that. As the Obama youthroots movement continues to grow in strength, size, and momentum, this may very well be the campaign to demonstrate the growing force of a new generation and the incredible power of young voters in 2008.