STEVE INSKEEP, host:
More than 2,000 community organizers met in Washington, D.C. recently to celebrate the election of a former organizer, Barack Obama. They're also asking themselves, now what? They hope they will have unprecedented access in a new administration. NPR's Pam Fessler plans to follow some of these community groups over the next year to see what, if anything, they can do with this influence. This report is the first in an occasional series.
Unidentified Man: Four, three, two, showtime!
(Soundbite of crowd cheering)
PAM FESSLER: Showtime, indeed. For those gathered at the Washington Hilton last month, it was a long-awaited opening. For years, these community organizers were stuck in the wings. But Teresa Anderson of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition said now, it was their time to shine. And she recalled a promise made in Iowa a year earlier.
Ms. TERESA ANDERSON (Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition): Senator Obama, now President-elect Obama...
(Soundbite of cheering)
Ms. ANDERSON: …told us that we would have a place at the table where the decisions that impact all of us were going to be made. Today, we are here to keep that promise. Today is a new day!
Unidentified Man: Let's go, fired up and ready to go. Fired up and ready to go. Come on. Fired up and ready to go. Come on. Fired up and ready to go.
FESSLER: The crowd was so ecstatic and expectations so high, the walls actually shook. It wasn't your typical Washington affair. The activists, with their brightly colored T-shirts and baseball caps had traveled by bus from more than 30 states, many with children in tow and hope in their eyes. These people are usually on the front lines, pushing for low-income housing, universal health care, a higher minimum wage. But here they were on the inside, being courted by soon-to-be White House aides, such as Obama domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes.
Ms. MELODY BARNES (Director-Designate, White House Domestic Policy Council): We are counting, counting on you to talk to us. And we have already started that process of listening to people on health care so that we can use that information to build the solutions that are going to bring opportunity and mobility back to this country.
(Soundbite of crowd cheering)
FESSLER: But a few blocks away was a sober reminder of just what they're up against. Executives from the Big Three auto makers were appearing on Capitol Hill to plead for a $34 billion government bailout. Gerry Hudson of the Service Employees International Union tried to bring everyone down to earth.
Mr. GERRY HUDSON (Service Employees International Union): I know and you know that this will not happen just because we now have a friend in the White House. It's going to take the active participation of all of us in trying to figure out, how do we, in fact, realize the promise of this moment?
(Soundbite of bell ringing)
FESSLER: Which was the topic two weeks later in the basement of a small church in Charlottesville, Virginia. Staffers from the Virginia Organizing Project had attended the Washington rally, and now a dozen of them now sat at a table in a former daycare center planning their next moves. These organizers are used to working at the state and local level, but executive director Joe Szakos reminds them they're now part of something bigger.
Mr. JOE SZAKOS (Executive Director, Virginia Organizing Project): We're talking about going to Washington, D.C. in February and March. Just want to let you know some more details. It would be Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday...
FESSLER: Community organizers decided at the D.C. rally that they'll return to Washington every week for the first one hundred days of the new administration to lobby for their agenda - health care, jobs and immigration reform - and to make a mark.
Mr. SZAKOS: There will be a place for you to stay, and you'll be working with the staff people, with the Center for Community Change and other national groups. So you don't have to worry about setting up appointments or doing any of that. You just have to go, learn a lot and get people active.
FESSLER: Szakos says the Obama campaign spawned an incredible grassroots network. Although it's nonpartisan, the Virginia Organizing Project knocked on more than 140,000 doors this summer to get out the vote. They also asked voters what issues mattered most to them, and entered that information into a national database, something called the Voter Activation Network, which is used widely by Democrats and progressive groups. Organizer Kevin Simowitz tells his colleagues it will be a powerful tool in the coming months.
Mr. KEVIN SIMOWITZ (Virginia Organizing Project): We could really quickly pull up a list of everyone from this summer that said health care was their number one priority, who lives in the city of Alexandria, and who is 65 years of age and older. We could make that list in about 10 minutes, and have it in 20 at this point. And then we could follow up and do phone calls with them tonight.
FESSLER: Joe Szakos says the ability of community groups to pool information has transformed the political landscape.
Mr. SZAKOS: In the past, a lot of elected officials just refused to meet with you. And what we found is, we've switched their political calculator a little bit, because there's almost a direct relationship. The more doors you knock on, the easier it's going to be to get that meeting.
FESSLER: He says that's because the door-knockers have been able to learn what's on people's minds, and politicians know that the organizers can communicate directly with those voters.
Mr. SZAKOS: They know with one push of an e-mail, you can send out something statewide. All of a sudden, they can't control as much as they could in the past, and they can't hide.
Mr. SZAKOS: I want to acknowledge now three people who have been apprentice organizers with us. And we're going to take away the apprentice, and call them organizers. Sharon, Harold and Kevin.
(Soundbite of applause and cheering)
FESSLER: It's all hands on deck this year, and everyone here is ready to go. Szakos isn't exactly sure what's on the Washington agenda. He says his group will take its cues from some of the national groups. Community organizers think they'll have more success if they work together on one or two items at a time, rather than pushing a long list of demands.
But legislative director Ben Greenberg, who's a seasoned lobbyist, has some words of caution. He thinks the new administration's honeymoon is already over because of the bad economy.
Mr. BEN GREENBERG (Legislative Director; Lobbyist): They're going to be in a survival mode for at least a couple of years, and I'm hoping not for the entire four years. So I think we have reason to worry that we're going to be still dreaming about the things we want to accomplish very late in the first term.
FESSLER: That doesn't mean they won't try. These community organizers plan to be at the table along with everyone else. The first step is to show Washington they're a power to be reckoned with. Pam Fessler, NPR News.
INSKEEP: As Pam's series continues, we're going to follow some of the local community groups as they come to Washington to make their case, and try to figure out which cause they'll push for first.