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Friday, February 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 8.0° F  Fair
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Barack Obama's army of the young
Local high school students play a key role in campaign
Elizabeth Levine (center), with Georgia Greene (left), and
Callum Abbott, co-directors of the West High student group.
Elizabeth Levine (center), with Georgia Greene (left), and Callum Abbott, co-directors of the West High student group.
Credit:Mary Langenfeld

Elizabeth Levine spends almost every waking moment outside of class at the Madison Field Headquarters of Barack Obama's campaign. Though she's too young to vote, she sees it as a way to make a real difference.

"A lot of people feel like very small fish in a very big pond," says Levine, 17, a senior at West High. "It's not just the people on top that can make a difference."

Levine is one of dozens of Madison high school students actively engaged in Obama's statewide Campaign for Change. She works as an unpaid intern, through a program run by the campaign for high school and college students. Collectively, they make the Monroe Street campaign office ground zero for one of the most youth-centric campaigns this state has ever seen.

This fall, high school students from throughout the Madison area are devoting at least 15 hours each week - and some considerably more - to Obama's Wisconsin campaign. Nationally, Obama's campaign cites as one of its goals to support "a new generation of leadership that believes, like Sen. Obama, that real change comes from the ground up."

State campaign spokeswoman Heidi Hubmann oddly refuses to say how many high school students serve as interns and volunteers. She calls this "internal campaign information."

But Mary Ellen Block, Obama's deputy regional field director for the Madison area, says the campaign has selected an equal number of high school and college interns (there is an application process). And they are charged with significant responsibilities, not just getting coffee.

"Interns are treated as equals" by campaign staff, Block says. Working side-by-side with the campaign's eight Madison-area field organizers, students gain a strong understanding of the nuts and bolts of running a grassroots campaign.

Levine, for instance, says she's made thousands of calls to persuade local residents to support Obama. She's also helped with voter registration efforts, staffed house parties and other community events, and knocked on doors across Dane County.

Block calls the "outpouring" of young volunteers an integral component of this campaign. But come November, what difference will the under-18 set actually make?

Barry Burden, a professor of political science at the UW-Madison, sees Obama's outreach to teens as part of a larger Democratic Party strategy to secure its dominance in future elections.

"The Republican Party has a real fear that because young people are so much more favorable towards Democrats, the entire electorate will swing Democratic as they age," Burden explains. So not only is Obama benefiting from an army of students whose engagement costs the campaign little, he's helping build a Democratic majority.

(Local McCain campaign officials, asking that they not be quoted, say high school students are welcome as volunteers and that a few students take part in canvassing and phone banking. But its internship program currently does not include any high school students, and the campaign does not appear to have a program specific to students under 18.)

Internships aren't the only way the Obama campaign is mobilizing high school students. At the Madison office, each Tuesday from 5 to 9 p.m. is High School Night. Students from across Dane County gather for pizza, music, fun...and phone banking. Throughout the evening, students place calls to recruit volunteers, ask for donations and win over undecided voters.

High School Night is organized by Levine and other high school interns, who tap into their social networks to recruit teen volunteers. Students say it isn't hard to convince friends and classmates to get involved.

"Obama's power to influence has ended whatever apathy youth might have had," says Andrew Muir, a senior at Madison Memorial and the coordinator for volunteers from high schools throughout western Dane County. "High school students have an overwhelming desire for change and for hope in their future. They want to dream again."

Turnout at High School Night varies. Interns say an "amazing" number of students stop by the office most weeks. Many interns say they plan to stay involved in politics and activism, but few are interested in dedicating their lives to organizing.

"This particular kind of work isn't something I want to make a career of," says Gabe Elkind, a West High junior and Obama intern.

Many of Obama's youthful supporters are involved in a range of leadership roles. Muir, for instance, is president of Memorial's National Honor Society chapter. Levine is president of a marketing and sales organization at West. Which raises the question: What is the Obama campaign doing to engage students excluded from traditional leadership roles?

Despite the high number of students of color enrolled in Madison schools (around 48%), the face of student leadership in Madison schools is overwhelmingly white. As Burden asserts, "Privileged students tend to show up in leadership roles more." So, too, a large majority of those seen working in the local Obama office are white. Muir thinks there are other interns of color, but adds, "I've never actually met them."

Burden attributes the relative disengagement of students of color in the Obama campaign to its grassroots structure. High school students recruit other students they know to get involved, "and from Facebook to churches, social networks tend to be relatively segregated."

His hypothesis seems valid: Student volunteers are largely organized through a series of Facebook groups. Among the 250 members of the West High's Facebook network for Obama supporters, and the 175 who have joined Memorial's group, only a handful are minorities.

Many define community organizing as an effort among marginalized folks to reclaim power. In that case, is this a true Campaign for Change - or, God forbid, just more of the same?

Already, the involvement of young people in Obama's campaign has had one effect: challenging popular assumptions about teen apathy.

According to Burden, youth become eligible to vote just as they leave high school, a point at which they become more mobile and less invested in a community. He suggests that may make high school students more likely than college students to get involved.

"High school students [will keep] doing all this work because they can't vote," he says. "They're stymied on Election Day."

That taps into what Levine has learned: "It's not just being able to vote that counts. You can make a difference in a lot of different ways."

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