No country of white men
Director of the Student Peace Alliance at The Peace Alliance
Banner in the entrance of Obama 2012 HQ
Remember that scene in the movie Money Ball when cigar smoking, fairly aged white men made decisions out of smoke around the power table?
That’s how elections used to be run. In the United States at least. But no more.
After a couple rounds of job loss in 2009 and 2010, I found myself in Burundi working a dream job for the United Nations Development Program. For all the theories of imperfection about the United Nations I had studied (and even witnessed during an internship with the General Assembly in NYC), my experience in Burundi proved to be most valuable. I was working with a great team, under the supervision of a Country Director and mentor who knew how to inspire, think big, and do big, in a good way. The team was instrumental in ensuring a peaceful post-conflict election that featured a record number of women registered and elected to office. The team was also instrumental in creating a model that disarmed rebels and put them to work with sustainable cooperatives locals created themselves.
Yet after a year I left. I felt crazy for leaving. But I was about to become a United States citizen, and my gut was telling me to pack up and move to Chicago for the potential volunteer position friends working on the campaign told me I should come and seek. For the record, I didn’t know of, and thus did not have—yet—boundless admiration for Olivia Pope and her gut. What convinced a rather pragmatic me to leave her dream job for a potential volunteer position after suffering the pains of unemployment? Co-workers on the campaign turned out to be the most talented, hard working, and humble bunch I have encountered. I knew I would have some great co-workers as I had trained with some of them at the social media organizing wizard institute (otherwise known as NOI) but the whole bunch?! Where in the world of politics do you find a bunch of crazy talented, result producing, and humble colleagues? I am glad I found them, but I must admit I was not counting on it. So what else might have convinced me?
Barack Obama is cool, that is for sure. But wait until you meet Michelle, the funniest woman alive (sorry Sarah [Silverman], that add with your grandma was pretty funny tough), and so much more! But my boss in Burundi was super cool too. The Obamas give great hugs. But so did my UN colleagues. So I am back to my gut. My gut told my head to think about Chicago, followed-up with some heavy lobbying, and then my heart got involved. My heart made the point I was becoming a new citizen and needed to do what was right for my country. It also made the point that the results of the election would have an impact way beyond the country’s borders—as, incidentally, a few Burundian kids I was working with reminded me of. My head concluded it was a risky move, but knew that the happiest and most successful people it had met traveling the globe were those who took risks because they had nothing to loose, or despite the fact that they had everything to loose. Not all risk takers had made it, but all who had made it were informed risk takers.
There are different kinds of risks. The ones that can truly work are those you take because you can back them up with facts and because they are the right things to do. This was special about the Obama 2012 Campaign bunch. From the intern who postponed his graduation for more than a year to provide his much needed help to the field team, to the Deputy campaign manager who left her highly profitable firm to run the campaign’s communications. From the volunteers who took off work to help, to the genius engineers who left high paying jobs in California to design dashboard, the campaign online field office. From the young artists who spent their break making the 24/7 office walls soothing with their inspiring art to “Do it for Alex.” From the campaign manager who in the midst of the most important mission of his life found the good humor to name the office elevators after Romney’s cars to the young volunteers (including my paw waiving dog) who participated in Chicago pride’s parade like it was a national holiday. The vast majority of those who greatly helped put Barack Obama back in the White House did it because for them at least, it was the right thing to do. It was the right thing to do and they did it the right way. Transparency (and at times humor) ruled, just like they did, by the way, at UNDP.
So my head had me convinced taking a risk could be a good thing. As a matter of integrity tough, I had to check, what risk was the campaign itself taking? A look at the early version of the campaign website gave me the answer. The Obama 2012 Campaign was talking to 21st century America. Today, the United States is composed of a vast majority of minorities plus women (who are a majority on their own). A country of white men it is no more, not by headcounts, and engaged headcounts are really important to win a democratic election or any grassroots campaign for that matter. So the Obama Campaign hired more women than men, put women in senior positions, and hired heads of ethnically and socially diverse constituency groups who not only looked like them, but also breathed like them. These “heads” had grown up and been active in the communities they were reaching out to on behalf of the President. They met their constituencies where they were. But it was not divide and conquer. It was respect, empower, include, win. The operation was called Operation Vote, and that is the part of the campaign I wanted to help.
Operation Vote made complete sense from a rational point of view, and it was the right thing to do: reaching out to the diversity that makes our country strong, listening to it, provide state of the art organizing training where needed, letting the work of our diverse volunteers and constituents inform decisions at the top, making them feel like the integral part of the American family they are, and together with them, win the election. As much as it was the smart and right thing to do, it had not been done before in the context of a presidential election, and trying something new when you are trying to put a President back in the White House, is, by definition, risky. I was sold. I was packed, over the Atlantic, through the Great Plains, and on the 6th floor of Chicago’s Prudential building, the campaign’s headquarters. I started as a volunteer at HQ with Operation Vote, and graduated to a Youth Fellow position in the field. Like everyone who opened the door of an Obama Campaign Office, I was empowered to inspire, include, train, and win. These are turning out to be really handy skills to have to truly do good, getting results, and thereby eventually making an adequate living doing it. In fact, from what I have seen, there is a crying need for more united diversity (ethnic, gender, social, and/or in term of recognition) in political work and peace work.
I grew up in a middle-class family in one of the economically poorest regions of Europe, la region du Centre in Belgium. I studied international relations and political science in the United States, and worked in China, India, Brazil, Burundi, and North America. For sport competitions I traveled across Europe and to Russia and North Africa. I am lucky, I found ways to get around. In my late twenties I still have to make a home for myself somewhere, but on the other hand you can parachute me about anywhere and I should be just fine. The learned secrets? First, respect. Listen and observe, put on others’ shoes, allow time to do its work, come back to yourself and then ask questions. Congratulations, you have just learned a great deal, now share with and inspire others. Next, be inclusive in who you are and what you do, one time after the other. Be armed with facts, not smokes, and do the right thing. I don’t know of any other way to satisfying victory, and, walking the talk, I thought I would share.
She recognizes that there are great white men out there, and that all of them have become great through the diversity they have experienced and paid attention to. Marie and her colleagues at The Peace Alliance are working hard on diversifying their grassroots base in view of bringing lasting change through peacebuilding and violence prevention in the United States and its foreign relations.
This article was published on January 30th: School Day of Non-violence and Peace in Global Education Magazine