Neeta Datt, a volunteer leader with Organizing for Action, is addressing more than 20 guests in an overstuffed living room just outside of Silver Spring, Md. Snacks have been served, name tags applied, introductions completed. The assembled include a union organizer, an environmental lawyer, a leader of the Montgomery County Young Democrats, an aerospace engineer, and a member of the Maryland Sierra Club. They are all are here to discuss how OFA is going to help President Barack Obama combat climate change. Datt stands in front of a large notepad where suggestions will be recorded. Over the next two hours, tactics will be debated, voices raised, grievances and hopes aired, and upcoming actions announced.
Welcome to Organizing for Action, Team Obama’s second post-election attempt to transfer the volunteer structures, energy, and experience built up during two successful presidential campaigns into a force that can support the president’s legislative agenda. OFA volunteers believe the organization can help dictate the national terms of debate on key issues, in the process providing the president with the Congressional support he needs to enact his plans. “Let’s start a fight,” Datt says, speaking of the proactive battle she wants to wage.
But beyond any particular slate of policy aims, the group also exists as an experiment in long-term issue advocacy and organizing. OFA is attempting to keep volunteers active even in the absence of looming legislation or an upcoming election.
Perhaps most importantly, the organization, which consistently bills itself as a grassroots entity promoting local autonomy and empowerment, is already attempting to focus activities around a clearly defined agenda that doesn’t appear likely to be significantly impacted by local dissent.
Matthew Baggetta, an assistant professor at Indiana University who studies civic engagement and community organizing, said that balancing act is one faced by many large groups. And while OFA volunteer leaders interviewed were supportive of the group’s structural approach, Baggetta said the efficiency of top-down decision making can come at a cost.
“Each time that you decide, we’re just going to make a decision, and we’re going to gun it out there and see what happens, that might get you a short-term policy gain, but it’s not necessarily building capacity for you in the long run,” Baggetta said.