Thursday, January 24, 2013

HAJET Article: Life After JET

I've been meaning to update my blog, to do one last post, to bring this to an end.  I think it's fitting that I include the article I wrote for the HAJET Polestar January 2013 magazine because it's a summary of what I've been doing and thinking since I've returned to the United States.  I'm getting a little antsy and I'm ready to move on to something new, but I've had a terrific run the past few years.  I have so much to be thankful for! 

Life After JET

I knew early on that my second year in Japan would be my last for a while.  I had a great time in my final year, but I started to prepare for my return home well in advance.  I saved as much money as I could, arranged to be a substitute (supply) teacher for my hometown school district, and knew that I would be living at home.  When I landed in Chicago, and a few days later flew to my hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, I knew I made the right decision.  I was busy immediately with reconnecting with family and friends and started to work a few days a week as a substitute teacher.

Around mid-September, I got an email from a friend.  The email was about job openings in Iowa, a border state of South Dakota, for President Obama’s campaign.  Iowa was considered a swing state, and it was important for the President to win it since polling statewide and nationally showed that the race was close.  Here’s some trivia: South Dakota has voted for a Democratic president only four times in its entire history since 1892, and has gone overwhelmingly to Republicans in the last 12 elections (= 48 years).  My efforts in my home state weren’t going to change anything. But, maybe I could make a difference elsewhere.

So I applied on a Monday.  On Tuesday I got a call to schedule an interview for Wednesday. On Thursday I got the job offer, I sent the acceptance paperwork back on Friday, and I started the following Monday.  I was assigned to the Iowa City region, so on Monday, September 25th, I drove the six and a half hours from Sioux Falls to Iowa City to start my job.  I had a little training, met a lot of people, and jumped right in. The next morning I left for my actual placement: Grinnell, Iowa.

Sometimes I had to laugh about the parallels between JET and my campaign position as a Deputy Field Organizer (DFO).  I didn’t have a choice in my placement, so I got assigned to what is considered a mid-sized town in Iowa (about 15,000) and I only had one other campaign staffer in my office to work with.  Most of the local volunteers were wonderful and kind retired people, so my only friend my own age was my coworker (not that I had time for a social life).  I traveled every day to different locations around the two counties that we were responsible for organizing.  It was isolating, in that I worked every single day, 12+ hours a day, and my fellow rural campaign workers and I were scattered about the countryside—too far apart to meet up ever, considering our schedules.  And sometimes, we would Skype with other rural campaign staffers and talk about how lucky the Iowa City staff was to be in a city, sound familiar?

The purpose of my job as a DFO was to “organize” my assigned counties with my coworker, so that we maximized voter turnout among Democrats by registering new voters and encouraging voters to vote early by mail or in-person at a voting location.  Voter turnout was important for the President, because in 2008 President Obama lost Iowa to John McCain on Election Day, but because his team had gotten so many of his supporters to vote early, President Obama still won the state.  With the Electoral College, it’s more important for Presidential candidates to win a certain number of states, regardless of the margin, than to win the total popular vote.  Bush v. Gore in 2000 – need I say more?

My typical day started around 9am with a conference call with others in my region.  We would discuss our goals for the week or day, things to note, and receive updates on campaign events and strategy.  Sometimes we would also have an all-state teleconference for staff.  After that, our morning usually started quietly – we would work in the office to prepare for the rest of the day. As the day progressed, we usually had walk-ins – people who just walk into our office to get posters, yard signs, register to vote, want to volunteer, or ask questions – so by lunchtime our office was often quite busy. After lunch, I often left to go to Iowa County (my “turf”) to meet with some local volunteers.  I would host meetings around the county to recruit volunteers, train volunteers, or canvass with them.  Our prime “canvass time” was between 5pm and 9pm, so we had a relatively small window to contact voters.  After canvassing, I would collect the lists and data from my volunteers, and return to Grinnell, IA. I would take an evening conference call, enter data, and work on the logistics of any upcoming events, usually until about 10 or 11pm each night.

When we canvassed a neighborhood, my volunteers and I would have lists of targeted voters.  On our list, we could see a person’s political affiliation (Republican, Democrat, Independent, etc.), their registered address, their age, and what elections they had voted in recently.  It is a lot of information, but to be clear, it all came from public records.  Using public records and some campaign metrics, we could create very specific lists.  We targeted sporadic voters the most – those who vote, sometimes. Or they vote…unless they forget. Or they vote if it’s easy…but won’t if there’s bad weather or anything inconvenient about voting.  Each volunteer received a list and a map of the neighborhood and we’d have a brief action planning meeting. Then, we’d head out separately and go door-to-door to reach these voters that might not otherwise be reachable.

Democrats have a reputation for voting less regularly than Republicans, something that we had to fight in order to win the election.  Generally about 40% of Americans don’t vote in a Presidential election at all.  And usually, non-voters say that they don’t vote because their vote doesn’t count, or their vote won’t change anything, or they are truly apathetic.  But, of those who said they won’t vote, 43% would vote for President Obama “if they did vote,” while 20% supported Romney, and the rest either really really didn’t care, or would have voted for an alternative candidate.  In swing states like Iowa, or Ohio, or Florida, we had to convert those non-voters into voters or face a very real risk of losing the election.

So while we canvassed a neighborhood, we would talk to the residents and assess their level of support for the President.  I joined the campaign about six weeks before the election, so our focus was less on persuading people to vote for the President, and more on getting our supporters to vote early so we could build our vote margin.  If the people on our list no longer supported the President, we would record that and never go back to that residence – we did not want to waste time on non-supporters.  If people supported the President, we would answer questions they might have, make sure that they were properly registered to vote, help them request a ballot by mail, give them information on early voting, or help them plan how they would vote on Election Day.  It took some time, but eventually I began to enjoy canvassing. 

One of my favorite memories on the campaign happened on Halloween.  On October 31st, about a week before the election, we started to focus on making sure those who requested to vote by mail actually completed their ballot and sent it back in.  It may seem strange to go door-to-door on Halloween, but our rationale was that it guaranteed a much higher percentage of people would be home to open their doors.  Usually they were disappointed to see that I was not a cute kid in a costume, but they were nice about it – sometimes insisting on giving me candy anyways. When I was doing this, I came across a low-income neighborhood where several people still had their ballot.  I approached them, talked with them, and found out that they hadn’t filled out their ballot yet because they just didn’t know how.  In three homes, for a total of five people, I was invited inside and I helped walk the residents through voting for the first time.  They took so much pride in voting that it gave me a renewed sense of purpose, and they thanked me profusely. I left knowing that if I hadn’t stopped by, they would not have voted.   

Voting is about the only thing that is truly equalizing in our political process anymore – a person can vote once and only once, and despite how much they make, how educated they are, how clean their house is, or whatever it may be, their vote is equal to everyone else’s. 

Throughout my time on the campaign, part of my job entailed preparing for the final four days of the election, our “Get Out The Vote” operation.  It felt like I worked endlessly recruiting volunteers, training volunteer captains, organizing the location, and getting the word out.  When those four days came, I directed the headquarters for Iowa County during that time.  Volunteers worked in shifts from 9am-9pm, and despite our rural location, we had an active, energetic, and passionate site with volunteers coming out of the woodwork to do what they could for the campaign while they still had the chance.  While our event was running, I knew we would win the election.  If rural Iowa, a traditional Republican stronghold, could be this passionate about the election, we weren’t going to lose.

Those were long days, but they were tremendously rewarding.  To be honest, I was amazed at how easily I made lasting friendships with so many of the campaign volunteers (despite the age difference!) in a matter of six short weeks.  It contrasts with my two years on JET, where making real friendships with my coworkers was such a challenge that I will probably only keep in contact with a handful of Japanese people.  Both JET and the campaign were great experiences, but the campaign was a good experience in the sense that it really jumpstarted my re-entry into American life and culture and showed me sides of the U.S. that I hadn’t experienced before.  I know that there are problems in the U.S. that are serious and very, very real, but after meeting so many good people who are working to make a difference, I have more hope for the future than I did before. 

To me, it still feels like I just left Japan.  It’s been tough to realize that I missed so much while I was away, both while I was in Japan and while I was working on the campaign. I had a close friend get married, another had her first child, another started his professional opera career, another moved to Chicago to pursue his acting career, one of my friends completed her Master’s degree, my youngest sister is now a senior in high school (!), and my other sisters aren’t in high school at all anymore. My grandparents seem a little bit older, my little cousins aren’t so little and aren’t so impressed by me anymore, and even the family cat has gotten noticeably older and fatter. 

I’ve had chances to visit Chicago, St. Louis, and go on a road trip with friends to the Black Hills in Western South Dakota.  I’m also looking forward to visiting one of my best friends out in California this February after I finish all of my graduate school applications.  At the moment I’m staying busy substitute teaching, watching my youngest sister play basketball for one of the best teams in our state, and applying for graduate schools for next year. 

This year has been an amazing year.  The people I care about changed while I was away, and so have I, but I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything. I’m enjoying life back in my hometown and I appreciate my community even more now that I realize how lucky I am.  I may have left good friends in Japan, but I have reconnected with old friends in the States. I left a steady job with JET for an uncertain future, but I’m happy with that decision.  Things may not go perfectly according to plan, but I’m looking forward to what the New Year will bring!

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