Productivity: An Interview with Sara El-Amine

*Note: Sara El-Amine recently announced she is taking on a new challenge as executive director of the Change.org Charitable Foundation. We can’t wait to see what she accomplishes.* 

Anyone who has ever had the privilege to meet Sara El-Amine (or even better, to watch her lead a training), is immediately struck by the true joy she radiates at all times, and especially when she is empowering others through organizing. Sara, currently the executive director of Organizing for Action, realized while organizing on Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign that her unique skillset coupled with her intense passion for empowering and training others, was in demand in the political grassroots movement. Luckily for the progressive community, she has pursued that work ever since.

Nicole Derse, co-founder and principal at 50+1 Strategies, is a longtime friend of Sara’s and served as her boss when she took on her first official training role: deputy training director at Organizing for America. She says of Sara, “[She] loves organizing more than anyone and that joy is contagious. Sara El- Amine proves that a joyful approach leads to both super productivity and inspiration.” Sara’s extremely successful career reminds all of us that to succeed in politics, you don’t have to be an asshole. In less than nine years, Sara has gone from being an organizer for a young Senator from Illinois to being the head of the non-profit created to push this now President’s agenda forward.

Through her first official step into organizing was in Iowa in 2007, Sara—the oldest of five children—has basically been organizing for as long as she can remember. As a de facto role model, Sara began to understand at a very young age how her thoughts and actions could help shape and change those around her. She faced her first chance to use her voice to influence others in her community following September 11th. As the daughter of an Irish-Catholic mother from Boston and a war refugee father from Lebanon, Sara faced confusion and distrust from some of those in her small Massachusetts town. Instead of rebelling or withdrawing from a difficult conversation, she organized a speaker series at her local library with her family to explain who Arab Americans and Muslims were to a packed house.

“When you understand your agency at a young age—even in a small family context—and then you see your ability to change things and to do good in other small contexts, it’s empowering.”

Inspired by her first taste with organizing, Sara next tried international organizing before feeling drawn to the 2008 presidential election.  There she would discover her unique ability to transfer the empowerment she first experienced to others all around her.

Now, as the executive director of Organizing for Action, she continues to find new, more impactful, and farther-reaching ways to build up individuals through organizing. As she leads the issue advocacy non-profit that was founded in 2013 to continue fighting for the issues that American’s voted for in 2012 in the re-election of President Obama, Sara and her team work on issues ranging from gun violence to implementation of the Affordable Care Act.  Through 350 self- governing grassroots chapters across the country, the largest social media megaphone in the political world (the President’s twitter account), and intentional training of activists, organizers, partner groups, and potential organizers, Organizing for Action helps to shape conversations around the issues affecting Americans most.

Through every step in her career, Sara relentlessly pursues the goal of improving the way the progressive movement treats its participants—through respect, empowerment, inclusion, training, and investment in their skills. She never forgets that she’s an organizer and that she always needs to be organizing. One of the most important components of organizing to Sara is effective management. She considers herself successful when she can figure out how to maximize everyone around her by being a great manager and teaching them to be a great manager.

With that as a metric, Sara can definitely consider herself very accomplished. Geoff Berman, vice president of programs for Educators 4 Excellence, worked with Sara for many years, one of them as her deputy national training director. He describes her as, “the kind of boss that gives you the space to grow, gives you the feedback you need to see your blind spots, and also bakes you cookies on your birthday.” Blown away by Sara when he first met her, Geoff continues to see her as one of his closest friends and an invaluable advisor and thought partner on all things work and otherwise.

Nothing short of remarkable, Sara’s optimism, dedication, and effectiveness have guided her to great personal and professional accomplishments. More importantly, they have changed the way progressive campaigns and organizations approach management, training, and development.

“The biggest thing you learn as an organizer (that is incredibly tough but also the most beautiful thing about organizing) is that everyone has a role to play and everyone has a skill they can offer.”

Sara found her role in the progressive movement long ago and everyone she reaches is incredibly lucky that she continues to offer her skills.

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AM: Did you have an Ah-Ha moment with organizing where something really clicked for you to make you a better organizer?

SE: I had this moment when I was at Organizing for America when it was a project at the DNC. I moved from being the in-state field director in Arizona to being in headquarters as the deputy training director in early 2010. I remember in Arizona, I had all these great moments realizing I could create my own culture, my own work environment and my own team. I sort of assumed that transitioning to a headquarters environment, I would have the same level of agency that I did when I was in the field or that it would be the same set of skills that I would need to use and flex.

I get to headquarters and I’m thinking, “I have all these ideas, I’m from the field so I have so much credibility and I can just tell folks what field needs and speak truth to power and we’re going to fix everything and it’s going to be great!”  The first thing that I propose is this professional development series of webinars because my whole theory of change is that we need to invest in training our staff just like we invest in training our volunteers. I put together this whole proposal and do it all on my own and I run it by my boss and she says, “This is great, good to go.”  Then I go to a meeting with all the regional directors I’m working with (who manage all the state staff that I’m supporting in my training role) and I say, “Alright, we want to start this on Thursday. Here’s my proposal for this awesome professional development series. I’m from the field, I’ve been talking to folks from the field, and everyone loves it. Any objections?” Basically, every single one of them objected for some reason.

I saw totally unanticipated objections to what I thought was categorically, objectively a really great idea and that there was hunger for. I remember going back to my manager, the amazing Nicole Derse, and fuming, “I’m so angry. What is wrong with these people? This is exactly what everyone wants and needs.” She took me back a step and asked, “Sara, how did you roll this out? Did you take time to get their input? Did you make them a part of the process?”

Then I sort of had an Ah-Ha moment where I realized, “Oh sh$t. I’m an organizer and I totally failed to realize that I always need to be organizing. Whether you’re in headquarters or you’re in the states or you’re running a massive national organization and working with a board of directors and lots of different key stakeholders, at every level buy-in is so important.

There’s no point in your career where you get to be like, “I checked the credibility box. Like, trust me, let’s do this.”

That really changed the way that I worked permanently for the better, and it’s been something I’ve definitely carried with me ever since.

AM: Did you do anything when you were an organizer that wasn’t directly required of you that made you a better organizer?

SE: There are a few different incidents I can think of—some of them were wise and some of them were really stupid.

In Iowa in 2007, we always hung all these door hangers with voters’ caucus locations on them. My fellow organizer, Shira Sternberg, had an idea for us to make these little cookie door-hangers.

The biggest thing you learn as an organizer (that is incredibly tough but also the most beautiful thing about organizing) is that everyone has a role to play and everyone has a skill they can offer.

As we all know, not everyone wants to knock doors or make calls, so we had people bake cookies and then we made all these little packages with cookies with their caucus location on them and hung them on people’s doors. It was really charming.

Similar to that, before caucus day we received all these cards from people around the country. I think David Plouffe or someone had sent a mass email to the country, because everyone was looking at Iowa and asked, “Please send words of encouragement to field organizers in Iowa.”

One day we started getting literally boxes and boxes of letters from people across the country. My crazy last-minute idea, sort of inspired by Shira’s above-and- beyond cookie caucus location packets, was to take the letters and some safe removable tape and on caucus day, we actually took all the letters from around the country and taped them to the doors along with their caucus location. The letters told personal stories and said things like, “I live in California and I don’t get to caucus, but the world is watching and we have your back.”  There were a few people that came to the caucus that I was at that had the letters in their hand.

Going above and beyond for me has always meant: letting other people in on the deep, special, moving parts of this work that sometimes can feel really cheesy, but if they’re received at the right moments, are actually really moving and special and deep.

In the name of relationships, I still always write handwritten thank you notes and send flowers and go above and beyond to make people know that their voice and their effort really matter and it’s really appreciated and really special.

AM: Describe an organizer lesson you learned early on that you still use to this day.

SE: I learned an important one in childhood from my mom. She would always have a million kids at the grocery store. When we got to the checkout aisle, no matter what my mother did, one of the kids would grab a piece of candy and start gnawing on it right off the bat. Instead of yelling at them, which I saw parents do time and time again, she did this incredible thing. She would smile and take the candy and exchange it for something like broccoli. Instead of saying, “No you can’t have candy,” she would say, “Of course you can have candy, you can have broccoli candy.”

She would reframe what she was giving them as something that they wanted. They got something to munch on which was at the core of what they wanted and my mom got them eating healthy food. It was totally win-win. Whereas if she’d said outright, “No, you cannot have this,” it would have been a temper tantrum baby in the checkout line.

I studied diplomacy in college and a lot of what they teach you is finding a way to get at the core of someone’s ask and realize what the key interests are on either side of mediation and conflict resolution. I just used the living daylights out of that with county party chairs who wanted our Obama volunteer list. Instead of, like a lot of my peers, saying, “Of course you can’t have my freaking list—I worked my butt off to build this list of my people and they just want to volunteer for President Obama.” I would say, “Of course we want to make sure that everyone up and down the ticket wins. Let’s figure out a way to do a joint canvass kickoff.”

I would find a happy medium and reframe the thing I was able to offer them as something that hit their core interest. I still do that to this day, all the time. Instead of saying, “No I can’t get you into that event photo- line,” it’s saying, “Great news! We got you a seat!  is is so exciting.”

AM: What advice do you have for an organizer trying to scale their work to a wider reach?

SE: No matter what you’re doing, create a project plan; especially if it’s a big thing, but even for medium size things. Let’s say you’re doing a GOTV training or maybe you’re planning a strategy for team building for your area. Spend time up top writing the plan and then actually execute and use the plan.

I think the single biggest thing that has been a success for me and my team is that I have never written a plan and put it in a drawer. When you write a plan and it’s transparent to everybody around you that this is what we’re all trying to do, when someone is succeeding or failing along the way, it’s incredibly clear.

As executive director at OFA, we have a policy handbook. It is a plan that we put in place for work hours, performance problems, and all the big picture things that as an organization you might deal with. In the times of stress or struggle or performance disasters, we have a paper, basically a contract, to go back to and say, “Hey person that did XYZ that had some negative outcome; this is the contract. This is the plan—it’s what we all agreed upon. You’re not following through with it.”

Organizers naturally are taught to plan because we have goals and benchmark deadlines, but I would recommend you spend a little extra time thinking about, “Are there parts of my work that I could make easier by getting really ahead of it all, putting everything on paper, and getting buy-in from people who have to give buy-in?” It really doesn’t take as much time as you think it does and it helps so much.

AM: Why should an organizer set aside valuable time to be intentional with their time management?

SE: I’ll say two things. The first is to know yourself. This takes a long time and it takes a lot of humility, but especially get to know your learning style. Are you visual, auditory, or kinesthetic? For me, the fastest route to increasing my productivity and my team’s productivity was knowing my learning style and everyone else on my team.

What happens is, you have a fire hose of information and directives every single day. When I realized I was generally a visual learner, I started making super- intense lists for myself that helped me immensely. To this day, I send weekly updates to my senior staff where I bullet all the big priorities for the whole organization. Knowing my own learning style helped me develop better organizational styles and be a better communicator. Knowing my team’s helped me to know what to do when I needed something.

The second thing is related to something we talk about as campaigns, but we don’t talk enough about as individuals, which is phasing. For me, just like there are phases in a campaign (capacity building, persuasion, voter registration, turnout etc.), in my life, the reason I’ve been able to go to at a breakneck pace for almost nine years now with the Obama movement, is I actually break my life into four-to-eight week chunks. I develop different routines for those one to two months.

Last fall, we were doing a massive long- term planning and fundraising push. I had to be pushing everyone else and setting the tone for 2016 programming planning and 2016 fundraising. I knew that there were going to be eight weeks where I just wasn’t going to be able to work out every morning, that I needed to get to work earlier and stay later, and that I needed to be on the road a lot for those eight weeks. I was just okay with it.

What I did was, I developed routines that made me happy and sort of sane and were the same for those eight hectic weeks. Then conversely, when we got back in January, I had already set the wheels in motion for my staff. I’d done the sprinting I needed to do so that I could pass the baton onto them. Now I could take eight weeks where I was going to take it a little bit easier and invest in cooking, working out, and my personal life.

I really phase my life. This might not work for everyone. I’m Type A and a crazy person, but I set the same intensity of goals in my personal life as I do in my professional life. It’s helped me be saner and happy and feel like I’m achieving in both arenas. Also, I’m kind to myself—I don’t expect that I work out every day all the time because sometimes I just don’t have time for that. But you can’t go for four months without giving yourself a little phased break, even if it’s just 15 extra minutes in the morning when you’re taking a walk and listening to nice music or something.

AM: What are your best tips or tools for an organizer wanting to boost their productivity and efficiency?

SE: Go to a The Management Center training—that’s the number one thing. Find a way to convince your campaign to do a The Management Center training. That was the single best thing for me and my team in every context I’ve ever worked in the progressive movement. It has boosted my productivity and my team’s productivity and set great norms and made everyone saner.

It all comes down to management for me. It comes down to setting clear expectations for yourself and for other people and when people don’t follow through on clear expectations, holding them accountable in a kind way. I think we’ve gotten a lot better on campaigns at not being the asshole walking around with a baseball bat in a field office, yelling at people when they don’t hit goals.

It’s sitting down and saying, “Hey, you didn’t hit your call goal this week. What happened? Did you need anything else from me?” If it happens three weeks in a row and you’ve given everything you can give as a manager, then it’s a performance problem and then you address the performance problem. There is this myth that people aren’t replaceable on campaigns, but they are. Layering is one of the worst things we can do as a progressive movement. I’ve definitely had to learn all those things the hard way.

There are all these kitschy things like trying to do only one task at a time. There’s no way an organizer is going to be able to do that! It’s totally unrealistic.

The most you can do to ensure success for yourself and for other people is figure out how you stay sane and calm and don’t lose your sense of self in the work.

Figure out how to maximize everyone around you by being a really great manager and teaching them to be a great manager. Then you’ll know when you fail, why you failed, and when other people fail, why they failed.

AM: What priorities or goals have you focused on throughout your career that have contributed to your success?

SE: The president said this, but it’s definitely been the way I’ve lived my life. “Think about what you want to do, not what you want to be.”

For me, I got into international organizing because I saw war happening in my dad’s home country and wanted to use my power and privilege to try to create more peace in that specific context; I tried at that and I failed miserably. I had to go back to the drawing board. But I realized, if I really wanted to intersect American foreign policy at its highest level, or have an impact on it (back then when Bush was president), the best thing I could do was go work on an American presidential election. What was crazy was, along the way, I ignited this whole new set of passions, particularly around training and leadership development where I realized what I wanted to do.

What I’m called to do and where my skillset fits is really making sure that as a progressive movement we really make sure the means match the ends. The way we treat people—with respect, empowerment, inclusion, training, and investment in their skills and career path—that’s something I’m uniquely positioned to help with. Every role I’ve taken since I started and realized that was a hole I was uniquely positioned to fill has been in service of doing that.

Whenever I decide what my next step will be, it might be a different thing I want to do, but I will never be the person who has a title in mind. I never wanted to be an executive director or said, “I want to be executive director.” I said, “I want to do this thing.”

I also always have some professional development something going on in the background. It’s much harder when you’re an organizer, but when I was an organizer it was books-on-tape because I was driving a lot. I’d listen to books on tape about management or about conflict resolution or about habits. More recently (because I have a little bit more extra time than I did as a field organizer), I did the New Leaders Council Fellowship, the Truman Political Partners Fellowship, and the Rockwood Executive Directors Fellowship. Currently, I’m looking for another type of extracurricular training that I can mooch off of.

AM: Any closing advice for organizers?

SE: You’re a manager. You have the honor and privilege of being a manager, for a lot of people, at a really unlikely stage of your life. Learn about management. Really become an excellent manager and think hard about what being a good manager means to you—what you’ve liked about past managers and what you’ve disliked. You will continue to rise if you are an excellent manager of people and projects. Those are both skills that you can learn no matter what set of skills you started out with.

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