From college classroom to Obama's campaign

How one college student is putting political theory to practical use.

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South Carolina doesn't see much snow, but for Jeremy Bird, Barack Obama's field director there, snowflakes are a good metaphor for political leadership.

Unlike the bicycle-wheel model, with one leader at the hub of the spokes, a snowflake has "a bunch of different hubs," Mr. Bird says. His goal is "to develop a grass-roots organizing program that really is based on people taking ownership and responsibility for ... the causes they believe in."

He credits the image to a course he took as a graduate student at Harvard seven years ago: "Organizing: People, Power, and Change," taught by Marshall Ganz. In the course, which is featured in a new book, "Educating for Democracy," students must do a project that requires mobilizing other people.

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Bird worked with a youth group in Boston, campaigning for better funding for city schools. "It was amazing to see that when you bring people together from all different walks of life and train them as leaders, you can really have a big impact on the political process," he says.

Mr. Ganz, a lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, says the skills of bringing people together to commit time and effort to a common purpose must be learned. "It used to be that we had broad civic institutions that taught a lot of people those skills," he says. Now, "universities have a huge role to play in equipping people with the basic skills of citizenship."

Bird learned that people are most often mobilized through their friends – especially young people. And he's tapping into that now: "You find some high school students that are getting engaged [in the campaign] ... and they go back and start to bring in other folks.... You get people to move and to act ... much more from people they know and trust in their social network than from some campaign coming in and telling them, 'This is fun.' "

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