Internship proves grassroots organizing not for faint of heart

Many people have summers filled with experiences that solidify their concepts of what they want to do with the rest of their lives. It may be working with environmental organizations or a tech start-up that makes you say “I could be here a long time.” Perhaps, however, the more important experiences we have are those in which we discover what we don’t want to do with out lives. My summer was an example of the latter.

After having been turned down for what seemed like an absurd number of internships—sometimes I was even told that I almost had the job which makes it all the more painful—I received a phone call late in the game. It was from Organizing for Action (OFA). Excited that someone finally read an application of mine and didn’t throw it in the trash, I quickly read up on their agenda,  called them back for an interview, and took the job. I was daunted, but undeniably excited.

As I discovered in my research, OFA is President Barak Obama’s issue-driven non-profit. That meant that we were not allowed to endorse specific politicians, we could only handle issues. Specifically we focused on three major ones: combating climate change, gun violence prevention and trying to pass comprehensive  immigration reform.

More peripherally we focused on other Democratic issues like women’s rights, spreading the word on the Affordable Care Act and fighting for marriage equality.

My first day of work was one of the most grueling experiences of my life. I made an hour drive down to Long Beach, where I found myself at a trade union building. As an organization low on funds at the regional level, we were meeting at the best possible free building. By best possible, I mean to say that we had to have a line of fans circling the room so that wouldn’t drown in our own sweat. But, in spite of it all, we were definitely more than thankful to our benefactors.

The day ahead of me was essentially a 10-hour workshop, with a break for lunch and a few other measly ones. Leading the meeting was the head of OFA California, a head honcho in her own right, along with a few other higher-ups in the organization.

Our first job was to socialize into the OFA fold. This was not a difficult task as everyone there, by nature answering the internship ad and making it through the interview process, were dedicated to the political agenda of President Obama and the Democratic leadership. Furthermore, in this first meeting we learned about our roles in the organization.

One of the most interesting aspects of this workshop and the experience as a whole was seeing the makeup of other Summer Fellows besides myself. I came in expecting only other college students looking to fill their summers. What I found was radically different.

Yes, there were some people like me, people in High School and College eager to gain organizing and leadership experience. But what I wasn’t expecting was the number of middle-aged and elderly people. Existing in any college bubble, especially Vassar’s, leads us to be conditioned to the idea that our peers are of the same age and background. But here I was sitting at a table with people two, three, even four-times my age.

It seems trite to say that our elders are founts of insight, but I found that to be anecdotally true. Seeing these people filled with zeal made me hope for my future, and wish that I would still be involved with causes that I was willing to exert such energy for (not in a political context, but generally).

Grassroots organizing, as I learned, is composed of a lot arduous work. Undoubtedly rewarding, yet difficult, and, at times, repetitive. On less exciting days, I would stay at home and make phone calls to Democrats and non-Democrats alike. Sometimes, on the good days, I would encounter lovely individuals who were interested in our cause, and wanted to help us out in any way possible. These were the times that convinced me that I could keep going.

Other times, however—as anyone who has had to make countless phone calls for a job surely knows—I was met with indifference, or worse, outright hostility. From this I learned the important lesson of not taking everyone seriously. Sometimes, after a rough call, you’ve just got to hang up the phone, snuggle with your cat, and remind yourself that ‘I’ll never have to encounter these people again.’ Also, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of having a cat.

One of the more exciting experiences I was visiting a local Congressman’s offices. While he wasn’t there, we were able to have a frank discussion with one of his legislative aides. Times like this, I was reminding of the humanity behind the politician. I must admit, some of the conversation was over my head, but I enjoyed it all the same.

All in all, I had an experience of growth, but as I alluded to earlier, I realized that this was not the life for me. Politics is a rough game, at all levels, including grassroots. Some people are truly driven when it comes to organizing, and I have all the respect in the world for them. But I am not one of those people.

I thrive when I am doing something where I can see results day in and day out. However, I am enormously thankful for the opportunity, which helped discover what I’m good at, and more importantly, what I’m not good at.

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