RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Now community organizers were elated when one of their own, Barack Obama, was elected to the White House. Now they're busy trying to influence issues such as health care and jobs. NPR's Pam Fessler is following a group of community organizers this year and takes us, this morning, to Harrisonburg, Virginia.
Ms. LIZ RIGGIN: So is the panel going to be up here?
Mr. LARRY YATES: I was thinking here.
Ms. RIGGIN: Okay.
Mr. YATES: We don't need to use the whole room.
PAM FESSLER: Larry Yates and Liz Riggin are arranging the chairs for a community forum at health care reform. He's with a group called the Virginia Organizing Project. She's an intern. They're an interesting pair. She thinks it might be better if the scattered chairs are a bit more organized.
Mr. YATES: You know, I'm just thinking not.
Ms. RIGGIN: Really?
Mr. YATES: See, we had all those sofas and chairs there. I don't know. Do you think it looks too terrible? Yeah, you do.
FESSLER: Yates has been organizing in one form or another since the anti-war protests of the '60s. With his bushy white beard, he looks like a disheveled Santa Claus. Riggin is a social work major at James Madison University. Her interest in community organizing was sparked by her work on the Obama campaign. She knows she has a lot to learn.
Ms. RIGGIN: Hi. Are you here for the health care forum?
Unidentified Man #1: Yes.
Ms. RIGGIN: Yes! I'm Liz Riggin.
FESSLER: This is one of ten forums the Virginia Organizing Project is holding across the state. They're trying to get people to lobby lawmakers for more affordable health care. They've invited local residents, health care providers and other interest groups.
That's what community organizers do; bring people together to try to figure out how to make change.
Mr. YATES: Hi. How are you doing?
FESSLER: Yates hopes that Riggin will also pick up some pointers tonight. He won't be around forever. Part of his job is to make sure others in the community can take the lead on issues they care about. But right now, both he and Riggin are getting a little nervous because so few people have arrived.
Mr. YATES: Well, nothing ever starts until 7.5 minutes after it's supposed to.
Ms. RIGGIN: Okay. That's good to know.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FESSLER: But eventually people do come, and Riggin is no dummy.
Ms. RIGGIN: Here comes a lot of my friends.
FESSLER: She invited her friends.
Ms. RIGGIN: That's the good thing about social workers. We all support each other. It's very nice to be in that community.
Mr. YATES: Good evening, everybody, and I really appreciate you coming out, though it's so nasty outside...
FESSLER: About 30 people are here now. Yates tells that health care reform is possible this year, and that they need to be at the table.
Mr. YATES: And our experience as organizers tells us that the only way it is going to happen is not just because the right guy is president or the right person is in Congress. What will really make the difference is for each one of you and people like you all over the country to raise the level of fuss.
FESSLER: He says lawmakers need to hear directly from their constituents to counter powerful special interests in Washington. And that the most effective message is a personal story. Like a showman, he asks everyone here to say something about themselves, and soon the stories are pouring out.
Unidentified Woman #1: When I was 15, I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. I'm now 22, and when I turn 23, I won't have health care.
Unidentified Woman #2: The paperwork I have found, even for those that have coverage, it makes me crazy.
Unidentified Man #2: He has now asked to go see a cardiologist. He has no chance in hell of ever paying any of these bills.
FESSLER: Everyone here has a story, and when they're done, Riggin gets to the point of the event.
Ms. RIGGIN: I have paper and envelopes, so tonight before you leave, I would really appreciate it if you'd write a letter. We can send it. I can just pass out the paper now.
FESSLER: Several people start writing their senators and congressmen immediately. They seem really pumped. Afterwards, Riggin declares the meeting a success, although she only has a handful of letters.
Mr. YATES: Can 30 people change the whole United States? No. But we did this ten times across the state and it's being done all across the country, and this is not the first or last event for probably anybody here.
FESSLER: Yates says that community organizing is a gradual process. It's about making connections and building networks. He says if everyone here talks to a few others, the message will spread. He notes that a local TV station also covered the event, reaching thousands more.
Liz Riggin says if there's one thing she's learned about community organizing so far, it's that one has to be flexible and very patient.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And you'll find more of Pam's stories in her series on community organizers at our Web site, NPR.org.
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MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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