SixFifty

lessons from America

We the People – Delia Paine

For the past month I have been proudly wearing an “I was there … Obama inauguration” button [badge] on my jacket. I’ve worn a variety of Obama buttons and hats since attending the Convention back last August. That action encapsulates possibly the number one lesson from the US elections and the Obama campaign I have taken away with me: the importance of “visibility”.

During a campaign in the UK, it is possible to go through whole constituencies and see barely a sign that an election is going on. Not in America, or at least not this time. Posters, banners, yard-signs, bumper stickers, people holding up placards by the side of the road, clothing – so many ways that showed (i) an election was happening (ii) the result / politics mattered (iii) people wanted to be identified supporting a particular candidate or party … and spread those messages to others in the neighbourhood.

Wearing a campaign button is one of the cheapest, easiest and most effective ways to be ‘visible’. Without any further effort, your message is seen by whoever you pass by on the street, sit opposite on public transport, or have a conversation with. But more than that – as I know from my experiences in the US and when wearing Obama buttons here – it can be a great conversation-starter, and way of getting strangers, or friends, interacting about something political. And what may start as purely an act of showing your identity, or seemingly doing the bare minimum to support a cause, can actually be the first step along a path to greater activism. The more you share your story (whether to other supporters or to those that question your affiliation), often the stronger that connection gets; and the more likely you are to meet and feel motivated to join with other campaigners.

What does all this have to do with the ‘We the People’ inaugural ball you may ask? Well, there that evening I met someone who absolutely epitomises the spirit and the power of visibility, and have been raving about her – and her work – ever since. Step forward, Delia Paine – aka “the button woman”, aka ViaDelia.

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When I met Delia she was standing by a long table full of brightly-coloured and shiny buttons emblazoned with the words “Hope Wins”, “Yes We Did”, “44th President, Barack Obama”, or simply “Obama”. Here on display and very much on sale to the queues of inquistive and excited ball-goers was her artwork; her creations. These were no ordinary Obama buttons. Each one was handmade, from a variety of decorative paper, foils and other materials. Special and unique and great mementos, definitely. But there was something more; and as we talked and I learnt about the story of the buttons, the journey – both geographic and political – that the buttons had taken her on, unfolded.

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Delia is an artist based in Bend, Oregon, and had been making and selling arts and crafts for many years. She did commissions – for one-off events or personal celebrations, nothing political – and made buttons promoting her local community. Then in summer 2008 she was approached by some local Obama campaigners who asked if she could use the same technique for producing some buttons in support of Obama. A few were made and they proved extremely popular … and so production continued and quickly increased. More and more people were seeing their neighbours or fellow activists wearing them, and wanting their own. Soon the buttons were the top-selling item at the local Democratic campaign HQ. And the buttons served a dual purpose, for they proved to be a great fundraising tool for the party too. Word spread and Obama and Democratic campaign offices across the States of Oregan, Washington and California wanted to be part of it and bought thousands of buttons to sell on to supporters. Together these offices raised over $20,000 simply from the sale of Delia’s buttons between August and November.

Even before the buttons had gone region-wide, Delia spotted an opportunity to show her artwork to a larger audience. She took 1000 Obama buttons to Denver, to the Democratic Convention. Because this was very much a last-minute decision, all the proper pitches and stalls on the 16th Street Mall had been taken already. But she set herself up in a tiny spot anyway and sure enough people did find her. And so did the media. In 4 days she sold $10,000 worth of buttons; and all the media attention, word of mouth by delegates and of course sightings on people’s clothes (including the likes of Speaker Nancy Pelosi) brought orders for thousands more buttons.

And so what started out as one extra design amongst the many she did, suddenly became Delia’s full-time occupation. And not just til November. There was no drop-off after the election victory as she’d initially expected, because demand for her special celebratory editions far exceeded anything she imagined. And so – to further take advantage of this continued demand – she decided to up sticks with her family and move for the month of January from Oregon to Washington DC, and rent a shop in Union Station selling her whole range of Obama buttons, magnets and key chains. One of the organisers of the ‘We the People Gala’ spotted her shop and was so impressed that they invited her along to the ball to showcase her work there. And that’s how I came to be talking to Delia.

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The story of the buttons is inspiring enough. And they are beautiful works of art. I have proudly worn one of the ones I bought from her not just at political meetings but at more formal social events over the past month. My colleague Lewis spotted a woman on a bus in London wearing one and they had a good conversation about the inauguration and Delia’s artwork. My snowman even sported a Delia button.

Yet what really made my encounter so special and affirming wasn’t the buttons, but Delia herself. She is skilled and creative not only in her art, but in marketing it; and does so in a very engaging and personable way. As we talked, it became clear that her passion for selling her merchandise was more than that of a salesperson. She believed in the Obama campaign and was happy to be doing something to support it. Yet this was the same woman who had already told me she wasn’t political and had never been so. In fact it had taken her 3 weeks after producing the first Obama buttons to feel comfortable in actually modelling one herself and longer to wear it often in public. Something had happened to her, even without her really noticing it … she had become politicised.

This transformation become complete to me – though I had to point it out and encourage her to recognise it in herself – in her response to my favourite question: “what’s next?”. Delia said that many people had approached her with particular commissions and she was now asking herself “can I sell this and still feel good about it? If I can’t, then the answer is no”. That to me is an awesome example of someone become more politically conscious and active. And as if to prove it, the commission she accepted and designs she has been selling since then are in support of marriage equality and the protection of gay rights – as part of the campaigning and solidarity activity going on in the wake of the yes vote to California’s Proposition 8 banning gay weddings.

The story of Delia and her buttons underlines how elections and campaigning needn’t be a dull, monotone business; and that being visible (in this case through making or wearing a button) can be a powerful and effective campaign tool and a change agent. And that latter bit gets to the very heart of why I care about politics and getting more people involved in the democratic process.

NB. There are more photos of the Obama buttons on Delia’s website, and you can buy a selection of her buttons via her online shop.

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February 20, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 4 Comments