We Still Need What #NOIGaveMe

They were the new guard in politics, disrupting the establishment players not with computers and data, although they had those, too, but with a renewed interest in and patience for populism, meritocracy, and participatory politics.

Last Friday, the New Organizing Institute’s Board announced that the organization would be folded into another political training organization, Wellstone Action. The announcement followed major internal conflict in February of this year. Here Matt Stempeck reflects on the community NOI built in the often tumultuous industry of political organizing.

The New Organizing Institute was always a community as much as it was an organization. After the 2004’s presidential campaign loss, some of the top digital agents from the Howard Dean and John Kerry campaigns got together with colleagues to rebuild. Their network was looser and more diverse than the formality suggested by the word “institute.” They were the new guard in politics, disrupting the establishment players not with computers and data, although they had those, too, but with a renewed interest in and patience for populism, meritocracy, and participatory politics. There weren’t always congressional candidates worthy of their talents, but they set to work changing how candidates campaign anyway, buoyed by the Democrats retaking Congress in 2006 and the election of Barack Obama to the Senate, among other victories.

The Howard Dean campaign was a short-lived but illuminating moment in the nation’s political imagination. It opened the doors of the professional campaign industry to a new generation that was eager to employ technology more effectively. Yet by the time I graduated college in 2006, DC’s political operatives and consultancies—including the Democrats—had hardly budged in their top-down worldviews. It wasn’t clear if the new generation’s tech-driven, empathy-centric way of doing things was going to disrupt the Beltway, or just get us all jobs on social media teams. Since then, I’ve seen my peers assume influential roles in important institutions where they’re involved in strategic decision making. The United States Digital Services (a common example recently, but hardly the only one) has worked to administration-proof itself and insulate its hundreds of forthcoming staff across the federal government, where they are better situated to outlast individual administrations while continuing their vital capacity building. The full impact of our disruption is still to be determined, but at least we’re doing more than tweeting.

I found the NOI community because on my graduation day, my undergraduate thesis advisor handed me the semi-translucent business card of one Michael Silberman. My advisor had connected the dots between my sprawling thesis on the disruptive influence of participatory media on the traditional political establishment, and the online politics panel where he’d seen Michael. Michael was the wünderkind coordinating the Dean campaign’s supporter engine of Meetup groups and rallies. Following the campaign, the core tech team started EchoDitto (now Echo & Co.), an open-source Drupal development shop, aspiring to build not just open websites, but open movements. EchoDitto was small by design; its founders never wanted to scale like their peers at Blue State Digital.

I managed to parlay Silberman’s business card into an awkward K Street Starbucks interview, and then an internship with a monthly stipend that covered the exact amount of my rent. After spending the fall learning to manage clients, I was hired full-time to the strategy team. My job at EchoDitto was never easy, but it was exhilarating. I believed in our clients’ work and benefitted from my coworkers’ talents. It took a long time for it to sink in that people were paying me money to use the coolest new tech to do good in the world. EchoDitto was a small company and very much a part of the broader D.C. political tech community that NOI inhabited. That community provided many of the opportunities, much of the meaning, and most of the camaraderie I ever found working in the trying industry of idealist politics.

As an NOI Advisory Board member, Michael introduced me to NOI founder and executive director Judith Freeman, and my awe and shyness disappeared when she dropped her first casual curse minutes into our conversation over beers in Cleveland Park. People like Judith, Michael, and Nicco Mele (also EchoDitto) ruined me for life by establishing very early in my career the formidable precedent of politically important and talented managers and mentors who were also humble, genuine, and nice.

I joined NOI on the first business day of 2010. In the year-and-a-half that I worked as one of the core staff members, I assumed the de facto role of communications and new media, mainly because I was simultaneously incredibly proud of the work my colleagues were doing and shocked that no one was sharing it on our website, much less with the rest of the world. Nearly every single staff person outside of a core admin team was running a program—many of them junior-level employees. They were individually leading national programs with a leanness that made DC’s other resource-strapped nonprofits look bloated, somehow extending themselves into ever-larger cascading networks of organizers, instructors, master trainers, volunteers, and trainees. I made it my job to take on any and all tasks that would employ tech and communications to scale such a tiny cadre into more capacity than we had any right achieving. I also learned pretty much everything I now know about campaign strategy, theory of change, and engagement organizing, lessons I’ve taken with me everywhere I’ve gone since.

NOI as we knew it is gone now. I’ll let those who were closer to the action write, or not write, about the particulars of the past year. The relationships the organization cultivated live on (see the #NOIgaveme hashtag Evan Sutton started for a small sample, and note how often other people are mentioned). Maybe this is the real benefit of a network-modeled organization that invested in forging ever more dense connections within its ever-expanding community: even if the organization shuts down, the network remains. I hope that Wellstone Action can integrate the best of NOI into their trainings.

One of the more unique things NOI achieved was establishing a home base in the transient and often lonely, always challenging profession of campaign work. Beyond the professional opportunities NOI opened to so many, and the peer network that helped keep you at the top of your game, the NOI community provided comfort when you needed it, as recently as Jake Brewer’s memorial service just two weeks ago. Whether or not it comes with 501(c)3 status and programmatic work, we still need a home for organizers.