Flying High

March 20, 2013
Flying High
Jeremy Bird

Jeremy Bird's work for President Barack Obama's 2012 reelection campaign sent him all over the country: South Carolina, Ohio, Chicago, and eventually the White House. In some ways, though, the 2002 Harvard Divinity School graduate is closer than ever to the trailer park in High Ridge, Missouri, where he grew up and to the working poor who were his family and friends.

"The kids I grew up with are the first that get sent to war," says Bird, MTS '02, the former national field director for Obama 2012. "The families I grew up with are the first to have one thing go wrong and they need public assistance—one health crisis, one plant closing, one piece of bad luck. That's the lens that I see public policy through. I want the people in government thinking about the people who sit around the table in a trailer park worrying about health care costs."

Widely credited as one of the architects of the successful Obama reelection campaign, Bird was in charge of the network of volunteers that met, persuaded, and mobilized voters in communities across the country. Though he draws inspiration from his hometown community, he says he's drawn on his HDS experience throughout his rise to the top of political organizing.

"The things that I learned at HDS—how to write, how to think critically, how to organize—have been really helpful over the last 10 years," he says. "Any good campaign would hire anyone that came out of the Divinity School, because they're smart, hardworking, and bring values to everything that they do."

Bird came to HDS from Wabash College in 2000. In his first year, he took a course by Harvard Kennedy School professor Marshall Ganz, "Organizing: People, Power, and Change," which was cross-listed at both the Kennedy and Divinity Schools. Bird says that the class got him excited about the intersection of faith and political action.

"We had to go out and organize as part of the class," he says. "I worked with the Boston Youth Organizing Project, which was part of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. It was a bunch of young people who were trying to get more money for inner-city schools. They were incredible and got new funds for textbooks, supplies, and other things. It was there that I saw the power of people coming together around shared values."

At HDS, Bird also took courses that dealt with religion and international conflict. He says that former Divinity School professor David Little's classes—which explored ethics, peace, justice, and human rights—helped steer him to a career in politics and organizing. The most important influences, though, were his classmates. After growing up in a community of the working poor, Bird almost didn't come to Harvard because he thought the students and faculty might be "pretentious." Instead he found "good people," who generously shared their own thoughts and beliefs, and were open to his.

"The conversations that I had with other students were as enriching to me as the course work," he says. "HDS was full of brilliant, interesting people."

Bird knew he wanted to be involved in public service even before he came to the Divinity School, and says that HDS provided a solid foundation for that career path. After graduation, he landed a position at Physicians for Human Rights in downtown Boston, then moved to the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, which enabled him to get hands-on experience as a mediator in the Chelsea, Massachusetts, courts.

While at HLS, Bird got excited by Howard Dean's 2003 presidential bid. Soon he was knocking on doors in New Hampshire for the candidate. When the Dean campaign fizzled, Bird went to work for 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, and then for the labor movement. Around this time he read Barack Obama's 1995 autobiography, Dreams from My Father, and thought he'd like to work for the then-senator if he could.

When Obama announced his run for president in 2007, Bird joined the campaign as South Carolina field director. He moved from state to state throughout the election, worked for Organizing for America afterward to push the priorities of the new administration, then returned to the Obama campaign as the national field director in 2011. Bird says that an understanding of religion has been crucial to his success in politics.

"Having a degree from the Divinity School was very useful to me in South Carolina, for instance, in 2007," he says. "I found that I could talk to ministers in the African American church. There was a perception that Democrats didn't understand religion or that we were antireligion. But the fact that I had gone to the Divinity School helped to open up conversations that might have been harder for me to have."

President Obama's reelection has drawn Bird, a youthful 34-year-old, into the national spotlight. He was featured prominently in a recent New Yorker article about the successful campaign. He blogs for the popular Huffington Post website. He even appeared on the Colbert Report to talk about his newest project, Battleground Texas, an effort to get African Americans, Latinos, and minorities to the polls in the Lone Star State. Bird says that his faith helps him to stay grounded amidst the accolades. Here, too, he credits his time at HDS, which allowed him to focus on spiritual growth and to connect his beliefs with his work as an organizer.

"The struggle that we had to provide health care to millions of people is about my faith," he says. "It's about what I learned at HDS: fighting for the poor, the oppressed, the widows, for those who are 'the least among us.' These are all things that come out of my Christian tradition. That connection with my faith helps me to remember that my work is ultimately not about winning. It's about my values and the people and causes that I support."

—by Paul Massari