As you may know, April is National Volunteer Month. I’m going to be real with you. I didn’t know this was a thing until one of my colleagues asked me to write a blog post about it. And as I sat down to write, my mind was flooded with the great many potential versions of this blog post:
“Volunteers Who Inspire Us Everyday”
“The Rise of Volunteerism in Corporate Social Responsibility”
“How Volunteers are Deciding Elections”
“Volunteer Recruitment: Best Practices for Organizers”
These stories are important ones, but they have been written. So instead, I thought I’d share something a bit more personal.
Something that many people are surprised to learn about me is that when I was a kid, I suffered from terrible and often debilitating anxiety.
When I was six years old, that anxiety manifested as phobias and morbid obsessions straight out of a Woody Allen film — everything from spiders to tornadoes to nuclear holocaust. I would get up at 4:30am, and watch the early morning news so that I could get a glimpse of the weather forecast. I’d record whether or not clouds were expected, and if they were, I would inform my mother that clouds meant a possibility of storms (remember, I was six), which meant a possibility of tornadoes, which meant that she and I were going to pack survival bags and spend the day in the basement…just in case. My parents — both clinical psychologists — were smart and supportive, and sat me down to tell me that I would be starting therapy.
So for the next five years, I spent Monday afternoons with Dr. John, who encouraged me to join the theatre, let me eat as many M&Ms as I wanted, and never beat me at Gin Rummy or Battleship (it was only years later, as a teenager, that it occurred to me that he had let me win). Therapy helped, and by the time middle school rolled around, the panic attacks had mostly subsided. The phobias had receded. They had been replaced with a lower-grade, less intense, but more constant undercurrent of social anxiety. In certain environments I was okay; in class, I could raise my hand and talk about the readings we’d been assigned. But in less structured environments for which there was no prescribed interaction, I struggled to even speak. Entering certain places filled me with dread: the school cafeteria, the locker room, the grocery store, the video rental, the pharmacy…any place where I had to speak to strangers made my stomach turn. School dances were an absolute nightmare. The fact that I was an intensely nerdy arts kid with braces, acne, glasses, and a pixie hair cut did not help.
With 900 students in my class, high school forced me out of my comfort zone, and by the time I got to college, I had grown less afraid of the everyday conversations with strangers that are a part of normal life. I still had moments when speaking to a cashier filled me with an inexplicable anxiety, but for the most part, I’d “grown out of” the painful shyness of my early adolescence.
Fast forward to May of 2008. Barack Obama is running for President and I am a junior studying Political Science and Theatre at Indiana University. I, inspired by the opportunity to be a small part of something big, decide to travel to Colorado (a battleground state) to do an unpaid organizing fellowship. After three days of training in Denver, I am dispatched to the turf and tasked with three things: set up an office, register voters, and recruit volunteers.
All three of these tasks involved an action that was fundamentally terrifying to me: asking something of strangers.
“Are you registered to vote at your current address?”
“Do you know of anyone who would be willing to let us work out of their garage or living room?”
“Would you consider hosting a house meeting?”
“Will you come register voters with me at UNC?”
“Can you meet me for coffee tomorrow to talk about how you can get involved with the campaign?”
I was given goals; 150 volunteer recruitment calls each night, 14 one-on-one meetings a week, and 90+ voter registration forms per week to start.
What. Had. I. Done.
I was certain that I could not do this. I just couldn’t. But the thought of quitting, packing my bags, and turning my back on this movement I so deeply believed in filled me with shame and disappointment.
So I stayed.
I faked the comfort and confidence I lacked. I forced myself to smile through the phone for four hours of recruitment calls each night, to avoid passive language when I made the volunteer ask as I had been trained, and to show up to the meetings with strangers in coffee shops.
I stood in the free speech zones and the Walmart parking lots and approached every person who walked in my direction to ask them if they were registered to vote. I worked out of a garage, out of my car, and out of library meeting rooms, and coffee shops. I slept on a cot in the basement of two volunteers who left muffins and orange juice on their kitchen counter for me every morning.
I met hundreds of people from all walks of life with stories that would break your heart, inspire you, and make you laugh. I made friends I would keep for years to come. I fell in love with organizing and found a voice I never knew I had. I stopped forcing the smile; it began to appear naturally. I met and exceeded my goals. I took fall semester off, and stayed in Colorado to organize full time through Election Day.
Being a part of electing Barack Obama in 2008 was the single most exceptional experience of my life. I discovered that there wasn’t so much to be afraid of and that what we can accomplish together is so much more remarkable than what we can accomplish alone. I learned that the best way to empower yourself is in the pursuit of empowering others. I began a career in grassroots campaigns that — after returning to school to finish my degree — moved me around the country through five electoral cycles. Now, at 270, I have the great privilege of training organizers all over the globe who are working tirelessly to make the world a better place.
Someone very special to me once said, “You’re every age you ever were inside.” And that’s true. The frightened six-year-old, the nerdy teenager, and the shy college student are all still a part of who I am. But I am also someone different — someone happier, less anxious, more confident, more fulfilled, and eager to meet and talk to strangers who enrich my life — all because I decided to volunteer on a campaign in the summer of 2008. I am so grateful for that.
So to those of you who feel passionately about a candidate or a cause, but who — like me — think “I just couldn’t,” my message is “Yes, you can.”
Take a deep breath, do some power posing, and pick up the phone (or a clipboard). Take the proverbial plunge. I promise you won’t regret it.
And if you need an extra nudge to do this now (and not next week or next year), it turns out that April is National Volunteer Month. There’s never been a better time to start.