Adrienne Lever didn’t bring much experience to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. “I graduated [from] Berkeley, got in my car and drove to a campaign office,” Lever says of her 23-year-old self. “I just worked as a volunteer until they hired me.” She ended up as a regional director for field programs in seven states, and has focused her work on activism and community organizing ever since.
Lever took what she learned from her on-the-ground work for the president’s campaign and now helps community leaders who want to effect change.
Recently, Lever traveled to Niger to talk to groups of women and young people in Niamey, Dosso and Tillabéry. In these gatherings, she discussed civic engagement before, during and after elections. She also gave a lecture at the University of Niamey about what she’d learned from the 2008 Obama campaign.
“The strength in grass-roots mobilization comes from a spirit of volunteerism,” said Lever, “from engaging people around the issues that they care about and talking to young people about things that are going to touch their lives.”
She said that in many countries in Africa she’s visited, “there’s a broad frustration that young people don’t have a voice because no one will elect them.” The lesson of American campaigns she’s worked on is that “nobody gets involved in a campaign or activity around politics because they think they’re going to end up being a member of Congress. They do it because they believe in a cause, because there’s something they want to change in the world or their community. That’s the spirit of participation that campaigns in the U.S. use to engage young people, by showing them that there is an impact for them, that it’s not just about what’s happening in the White House.”
Among the tools she urged her Nigerien audiences to employ to maximize their networks’ effectiveness was the snowflake model of organizing. First articulated by longtime organizer and Harvard professor Marshall Ganz, the snowflake model replaces a single leader in a network with interconnected leaders, each responsible for an aspect of a campaign. In this model, Ganz says, leadership is a practice and not a position.
In the example below, the dark blue figures represent regional organizers who each interact with two green figures (representing community coordinators), who each interact with five community members (light blue).
“People — and not just around election cycles — have been able to find power in building numbers by talking to people one person at a time,” said Lever. “By working on changing one heart and mind you build an exponential power base, and that’s how you change your environment and your world, ultimately.”