Sara El-Amine ’07 joined the Obama campaign at ground zero as a bilingual volunteer in Iowa. Having organized thousands of volunteers as a Washington insider, she’s prepared to be a revolutionary on the other side
Occidental Magazine | Winter 2017
By Samantha B. Bonar '90 | Photo by Jim Block
It was when The Audacity of Hope met the audacity of youth. Recent graduate Sara El-Amine ’07 was contemplating her future and leaning toward law school when a friend loaned her Barack Obama ’83’s 2006 book (subtitled Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream). The Illinois senator’s message immediately hooked the young Muslim-American from tiny Duxbury, Mass., daughter of a Lebanese physician war refugee and an Irish-American mother.
In short order, El-Amine quit her temp job in the Harvard Office of Career Services, borrowed a friend’s car, and drove 1,300 miles to an old ice-skating rink in Des Moines, Iowa— headquarters of Obama’s first presidential election campaign. Upon arrival, the diplomacy and world affairs major announced that she had studied diplomacy, knew Spanish and was there to volunteer.
“There were not a lot of us at Obama headquarters in 2007,” she recalls of her unpaid internship. “They had me do Latino outreach. I slept on someone’s dusty basement floor and ate a lot of cereal because I didn’t really have any money, and my mom kept sending me winter jackets because she was terrified about the cold.”
“She’s always had a thirst to fight for justice. That’s why Obama’s message resonated with her so much,” says longtime friend and fellow DWA major George Simpson ’07, who spent a semester at Oxy’s United Nations program in New York City with El-Amine when they were students.
A few months later, El-Amine was hired as a field organizer for the Obama campaign, training people how to caucus, and “then to all of our surprise and delight we won Iowa,” she says. In the leadup to the general election, El-Amine organized in Idaho, Mississippi, Texas, Indiana, Colorado, and Virginia. “I got hooked on organizing,” she says.
We all know what happened next: Obama was elected president, handily beating John McCain, and El-Amine rose with him, eventually becoming the administration’s youngest female senior staffer.
Obama “really believes that leadership has no age limit—it doesn’t look a certain way, and it doesn’t have to be a man or a woman. It can take any shape or form that action and power take,” El-Amine says of the opportunities that were given her.
“I had no idea that Sara would go into politics,” says DWA professor Anthony Chase. “But I have a distinct memory of the first time she walked into my office with incredible flair and presence. So it is not at all a surprise that she has been able to channel that presence and engagement in the political world.”
After the election, Obama launched Organizing for America (OFA), an advocacy arm of his presidency that would continue to promote the issues that he believed in. El-Amine was the first staffer hired, running the healthcare reform fight in Arizona, a task she thought would take three months but ended up lasting 13.
“Our numbers there, our metrics, were better than any other numbers in any other state,” El-Amine recalls. “Three-quarters of the way through the healthcare battle, headquarters asked me to share what I was doing that was different from the rest of the states. What I was doing—I thought it was really simple and straightforward—was holding trainings for my staff.”
In fact, she was an outlier. Not many other states had codified that or other “best practices of the Obama style of organizing that we’d all developed together,” El-Amine says. She was subsequently asked to take on the role of deputy director of organizational development for the Democratic National Committee.
After winning healthcare reform and losing the 2010 midterm elections, “the real action started,” El-Amine says. She became the first national director of training in American presidential politics. She developed curriculum and four different types of training for professionals and volunteers alike. “We basically had training for every single thing that you needed to learn how to do, and a program,” she says.
Training programs were state-specific. “Some states needed way more persuasion training than get-out-the-vote training. Some states needed a lot of volunteers who were experts in outreach to a specific demographic,” she explains. “The curriculum that we built is now used in thousands of progressive organizations across the country. And all those organizers have spread out and taken it with them and made it their own. It’s trained a new generation of organizers.”
From that success, El-Amine was named national director of Obama’s reelection campaign. Following his 2012 victory, El-Amine was tasked with launching “the last generation of the Obama grassroots movement” as executive director of Organizing for America, training tens of thousands of organizers across the United States. “We fought on gun control and immigration reform, and we successfully implemented the first enrollment period for Obamacare,” she says. “We tracked minimum wage, successfully passed marriage equality, and passed new regulations on climate change at the state level.”
With 250 local chapters, OFA raised tens of millions of dollars for Obama’s legislative agenda, and El-Amine was the president’s point person outside of the White House for his political program. She ran his Twitter account @barackobama—with 86 million followers, “three times what Donald Trump has,” El-Amine points out—as well as his Facebook page and barackobama.com website. With 30 million names, OFA’s political email list is said to be the largest of its kind.
She naturally developed a close relationship with Obama. “It’s been beyond incredible to have the opportunity to be up close and personal with someone who feels really mythical,” El-Amine says. “He is invested in helping train the next generation of community organizers. I consider him a mentor forever and a role model.” (“I call Obama ‘POTUS’ when I’m talking about him, but ‘Mr. President’ when I’m talking to him,” she adds.)
On an even more personal note, El-Amine met her husband-to-be, online organizing guru Jeff Gabriel, during Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. “He helped build the incredible muscle that was the Obama grassroots movement in California,” she says. Gabriel is now chief of staff to Jim Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media, the country’s leading kids advocacy nonprofit. “We’re getting married on Labor Day in Colorado, a state that went blue this cycle,” she says with a smile.
El-Amine stepped down from her post at OFA last September to work toward Hillary Clinton’s election. “I wasn’t a representative of the president in the same way that I had been for the last nine years,” she says. “OFA formally couldn’t work on the Hillary campaign, but I really wanted to defeat Donald Trump, particularly as he ramped up his Islamophobic rhetoric—I’m Muslim and Arab American—and his rhetoric against women.”
El-Amine worked for a number of organizations “strengthening different parts of the progressive movement that were fighting Donald Trump,” she says. “And he won the presidency despite everything everyone did. Organizers are needed now more than ever.”
As an independent consultant in San Francisco, El-Amine works with organizations such as Moveon.org, Safe Hands for Girls, Take on Hate (a project of ACCESS Michigan that’s fighting Islamophobia), and civic tech companies in the Bay Area like Brigade (which is building a new tech platform for civic engagement). She remains on the training advisory committee for the Obama Foundation and on the OFA board.
Ironically, “The activists who are the most experienced and most knowledgeable about our political system at this moment are some of the most disenchanted and depressed people in the country right now,” El-Amine says. “A lot of us are trying to regain the feelings of hope and idealism that powered us for so many years.”
The problem, as she sees it, is “we don’t actually have equal-opportunity access to democracy in our country,” El-Amine says. “Registering to vote is tough. Figuring out how and where to volunteer to move the needle on any given issue is tough. And unless we’re actually training people on basic civics, and how a bill becomes a law, and how members of Congress are influenced by their constituents, and what types of events or protests are effective, people will take action with the same confidence and ignorance as Donald Trump has on the other side.
“I think being on my own and having my own consulting practice means I get to be a revolutionary in the broadest sense of the word,” she adds. “I get to be in five or six or seven battles at once. As a strategic adviser, and someone who’s helping those battles be more efficient and smarter. My obsession is always efficiency.”
Hearkening back to her education, she adds, “Oxy gave me incredible, diverse, critical-thinker friends; professors whom I am in touch with to this day; a strong, disciplinary framework in diplomacy and world affairs and econ; and polished writing skills. Most importantly, it was a safe, supported space for me to explore and grapple with my mixed racial identities—just as it was for President Obama.”
“Sara is very creative, which gives her the ability to see through complex situations and predict who’s going to be a winner and who she should get behind,” Simpson says. “She’s also extremely driven by values, many of which she learned from her family. I always joke with her that being the oldest of five kids made her a really effective manager. She’s able to create purpose out of chaos.”
“I’m trying to lower the barriers for entry for political participation for the average person, and we’ve never needed the average person more than we do now,” El-Amine says of her new focus. One of her clients is Jaha Dukureh, a 26-year-old Gambian who was named to Glamour magazine’s 2016 Women of the Year list for her successful battle to make female genital mutilation illegal in her country. Now she is expanding her campaign to other countries in Africa, and “I’m advising her and helping her turn all that enthusiasm into structure,” El-Amine says.
“Sara literally came and helped build all of our strategies, from how we recruit volunteers to how we raise money,” Dukureh says. “Not only that, Sara has formed a bond with our team and become like a big sister to us. She is always there to answer a phone call or email. To me, it’s that moral support that she gives us that is so important.”
“Organizing has given me the tools to face another person, no matter how different they are from me, and see the beautiful humanity and value in them and the similarities between us,” she adds. “Organizing teaches you that with 80 percent of the public, if you meaningfully engage people, drop your shoulders, smile and listen with an open heart, there’s really nothing you can’t do and there’s no group of people you can’t unite around some shared mission or some shared set of values. And from that a set of actions.”
While admittedly “depressed” about Trump’s win, El-Amine remains heartened by the fact that legislation passed on the state and local level in the last nine years will be difficult for the Republican-controlled Congress to touch.
“The second thing that gives me hope is we trained tens of thousands of new community organizers. They’re still out there. And they’re more fired up than ever,” she says. “They’re getting organized and they will respectfully resist, and I know they’ll be successful. As organizers it’s our responsibility and our privilege to fight through all of this.”
“It’s my opinion that in this next year at least we have to fight this battle on multiple fronts because we don’t know if he’s going to attack women first or Muslims first or the sick, so I’m really trying to put my energy in a lot of different places at once and be as nimble as I possibly can for now until we know what the resistance has to actually look like,” El-Amine says of Trump. “And then I will drop whatever I’m doing and go full bore.”
“She’s optimistic, but realistic,” Simpson says. “She gets things done. We don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I know Sara will be one of the leaders guiding us through.”
“That’s my next mission,” El-Amine reveals. “Some people really want to change the world—I think we need to train the world. Training the world is changing the world.”