Inspiration: An Interview With Marlon Marshall

“Organizing is simply about building relationships to make change in your community for a purpose, person, or cause—and that will never change.”

Marlon Marshall, who currently serves as the director of state campaigns and political engagement for Hillary for America, has a long history of organizing. Through natural charisma, a seemingly endless amount of energy (I’ve seen him pretend-throw a chair across the room after a speech to fire up his staff on more than one occasion), leadership skills, and a lot of hard work, Marlon has become one of the most successful organizers in politics today.

Marlon is the son of a St. Louis computer teacher and a former airman with the Air Force. His mother, a teacher who taught for 36 years in inner city St. Louis, is his constant inspiration to work as hard as he does.

Growing up in a well-funded school district, Marlon noticed the significant disparity in resources between his school and the under-resourced school his mother taught at. Whereas he had access to computers, his mother’s students barely had enough pens and pencils. Watching his mom’s dedication to provide a quality education to disadvantaged kids, and particularly youth of color, Marlon became motivated to help improve the circumstances of children like those his mother taught.

Following the path not often taken by ambitious and successful college students, Marlon chose a career in organizing. Through organizing, he fell in love with engaging and empowering people around the issues that matter to them.

At the University of Kansas, Marlon’s classmate drew him into running for Student Senate. He immediately relished working with the student body around important issues at KU. Realizing how much he loved this type of work, he began volunteering in local races in 2002 and he’s been working in politics ever since.

From his first “real” organizing experience on the John Kerry campaign in 2004 to working for President Obama on Affordable Care Act (ACA) enrollment, Marlon’s encountered the ups and downs that all organizers face.

Talking with the man who now leads Hillary Clinton’s major primary state operations and all political engagement with federal, state, and local elected officials, it’s hard to imagine that Marlon was once a brand new organizer without a clue what he was doing, or why.

Just like many first time organizers, he was given a volunteer prospect list and eight empty phone bank chairs to fill. Luckily, Marlon didn’t give up despite feeling lost, trusting the guidance he’d been given. As he continued to reach out to volunteers, he began to meet the people who were giving up time out of their lives to help move their country forward. He was so inspired to see those eight full phonebank lines quickly grow to 40 full phonebank lines.  Every person in each phonebank seat mattered to Marlon, and all of his hard work had started to pay off.

Since his first presidential campaign in 2004, Marlon has been busy. After working in Maryland with the state party, he worked for Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign as the field director in Nevada, Ohio, and Indiana. Marshall stayed with Clinton’s team until she conceded the Democratic primary, before joining then-Senator Obama’s team as the general election director in Missouri.

In the next six years, he’d serve as the national field director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the deputy national field director for Obama’s reelection campaign, a founding partner of the grassroots consulting firm 270 Strategies, and as principal deputy director of the Office of Public Engagement of the White House.

Marlon describes his best moment as an organizer (so far!) to be the day the Congressional Budget Office estimated there were over seven million signups in the first year of the Affordable Care Act. When telling this story, he calls himself “a small part of the team” responsible for the ACA rollout, demonstrating that he heeds his own advice for organizers—never forget to be humble. As the Special Assistant to President Obama, Marlon actually oversaw the White House’s efforts to promote Obamacare in cities with large uninsured populations, and played a huge role in its great success.

As Marlon’s friend, the first thing I always wonder when I hear Marlon is signing up for yet another huge, all-consuming campaign, is how on earth does he keep doing it? When Marlon’s on a campaign, he is always energetic, he is always working hard, and he is always motivating those around him.

He told me he stays motivated by remembering why he got involved in the first place, and by taking the time to look around him. He continues organizing to push forward progress that will improve our education system and ensure everyone has the same opportunities.

“As an African-American male, it’s important for me that young kids of color can grow up to be whatever they want to be. But I also draw motivation from our volunteers. When you see folks taking time out of their day to give back and move their community forward—if that doesn’t give you inspiration, then you’re in the wrong business.”

Marlon Marshall is certainly in the right business.

AM: Do you remember any specific “Aha!” moment when being an organizer started to really click for you?

MM: It was probably in Cleveland, in 2004. I was in Missouri for John Kerry when they decided to pull all the staff out of Missouri one month before the election because Missouri was going to be a red state. I went to Cleveland, where I got to work with a lot of great folks. There were a lot of volunteers in Cleveland, so it was mostly signing people up for GOTV shifts on doors, phones, etc.

Even though we weren’t successful in that election, it all was just clicking for me. I saw “Okay, you build this whole organization to ultimately get to this point where you are able to contact as many voters in your neighborhood and tell your personal story about why you support that candidate,” and it all just made sense. Everything I had done in the two to three months before then—making all those calls, and getting all these volunteers into a phonebank—all made sense because by the end, we were talking to as many people as possible about the future of our country.

What I love about organizing, in particular for the Democratic Party, is that it’s all about getting people invested in their communities to move our progressive values forward. That’s when it definitely clicked for me—’04 Cleveland GOTV, when I saw the fruits of what we had built.

AM: What is the best advice you’ve received about organizing?

MM: I hate to give him credit, but it was Robby Mook [Hillary for America campaign manager]. In 2006 I was in a training with him for folks working on the Maryland coordinated campaign, when he said: “When you’re organizing, you want to make sure you’re leaving something behind that can last for a long, long time. Yes, you want to win your election, but it’s also about leaving something behind.”

After Obama for America in 2008 and 2012, we saw a lot of volunteers who were interested in running for local office. When you build neighborhood teams across the country, that should be part of your long-term vision. You’re finding volunteers who will one day be our next members of congress and more.

Thinking long-term about what you’re leaving behind in these communities is something that should be in every organizer’s mind whenever they go somewhere.  It is—first and foremost about getting that WIN on Election Day, but—are you leaving something that can last and continue to build and move the country forward for every day thereafter?

AM: If you were dropped as a community organizer into a brand new turf on a brand new campaign, what would you do that very first day, week, and month to set yourself up for success?

MM: I would first figure out who the key folks in the area are (both elected officials and activists), sit down with them one-on-one, ask a bunch of questions, and just listen. Ask and listen. Particularly if I wasn’t from that community. Your job as an organizer is to give people the tools and resources they need to engage their community. A lot of times it isn’t about a specific election—it’s really about how you move a community forward, period.

It’s not about steam-rolling into a community, being over-the-top and telling everyone what they should be doing. Your job is to support folks and get them engaged in moving their community forward, by doing a significant amount of listening and figuring out what works best in that community. While in every community you need to knock doors and make phone calls, you also need to figure out what the best ways to get folks involved are. For example, in some communities you need to build strong relationships with small business owners, because they’re going to be effective mouthpieces for your constituency in that community.

Spending as much time as possible humbly listening to key community members is the first thing I would do if I was dropped into a brand-new place. 

AM: Do you have a book, podcast, website, or resource you’d recommend to organizers?

MM: When I first started organizing, I read the book Sidewalk Strategies by Larry Tramutola. It’s about how to get people engaged in your campaign. He told a lot of good stories about work he did in California around ballot initiatives. He went to different cities around California and he would win these ballot initiatives, which sometimes you don’t think people pay attention to, but a lot of times they affect your everyday life more than anything else.

Sidewalk Strategies is a really good book because it discusses meeting people where they are, creating relationships, and really connecting your campaign values to those of your voters. It’s these value connections that really help organizing be successful.

AM: What new development in organizing are you most excited about today that will elevate our work to the next level? 

MM: Organizing is simply about building relationships to make change in your community for a purpose, person, or cause—and that will never change. People have successfully organized for years. You look at the big social movements that have happened in this country—they came about from organizing. For example, the civil rights movement was about getting people engaged in the process to move the ball forward.  And organizing played a big role in many large pieces of legislation that have moved our country forward.

In terms of what elevates organizing today, I would say, technology in general. Another central component of organizing is reaching people where they are. You have a lot of people online nowadays, so you need to consider how you use that to organize and how you use social media to meet people where they are, whether it be Twitter, or Facebook, or any of these new apps coming out.

But, the technology is just a tactic or channel to help you execute your overall strategy to hit your goals.

I don’t think there will ever be a day where you just purely organize online, but it should definitely be a part of what you’re doing. Always thinking through new ways to reach people where they are is the new focus of organizing. There are all these tools out there now, and bringing them into your overall strategy is important.

AM: What personal habit contributes to your success as an organizer?

MM: Before I started organizing, I was an unorganized person; organizing actually made me more organized with my day. I’m very much a systems person. With my team I do one-on-one meetings so that we can drill in on what they are doing and how I can be supportive to their everyday work. And then we have a big meeting once per week, where we can step back and look at where we are, how we got there, and reassess what we’re doing.

So, I guess my personal habit is creating systems. These systems help me support my team by allowing us to dig in when we need to get the job done, but also contribute to creating the team culture that is needed to move forward with a clear vision of where we need to go.

AM: Do you have a daily or weekly routine that helps you improve your health, your finances, or just to relax?

MM: I should say that my routine is always going to the gym and eating healthy, which I try to do, but it fluctuates a lot. It’s really hard. The biggest thing that keeps me doing this now is I have a wife who lets me know when I need to get my butt in the gym. I try to be realistic about it, but it’s real hard.

I always go back to the fact that you should be able to fit it into your day, whether it be early in the morning or late at night, if you manage your time wisely. But it’s not easy. It’s about prioritizing and making sure that you have healthy priorities in place.

AM: Do you do anything right before you go out to speak at an event to get pumped up?

MM: Nah, I’m kind of naturally pumped up. Right before an event I’ll write down on a little piece of paper some bullet points, because it helps me think about how I want to frame what I say, and this helps me get excited. But I don’t do jumping jacks or anything; I’m just naturally hyped.

AM: We got a question for you from an organizer having a tough time getting along with a volunteer. What advice do you have to help her improve their relationship?  

MM: The first thing to consider: is the volunteer meeting their goals? From there, you can take a step back, have a one-on-one with the volunteer, and be real about any challenges there. The challenges need to be around where you’re going; everything should be about if the job is getting done to help move everything forward.

Ultimately, volunteers are a critical part of the campaign and what makes the campaign run. So, you sometimes have to have real conversations, even the challenging ones, about any issues that arise. It’s most important that these conversations be solutions-based, focused on how you move the ball forward together.

AM: Do you have any parting words of advice for organizers?

MM: Always remember why you do the work. Weekly, take a step back to think about how you do your work. And remember, it’s not about you. It’s never about you. And if it is about you, you’re in the wrong business.

There’s a family of organizers who have done this before, so make sure you ask for advice. Never forget to be humble. There’s going to be a family of organizers who come after you, and if you don’t always help someone get to where you are, then it became about you, and it’s definitely not about you.