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rock-the-vote

According to my research, the 2008 election had the highest voter turnout as a percentage of the voting age population since 1968.

132,618,580 voters arrived at the polls and one of the many, many hardworking people responsible for that historic voter turnout last November was today’s Cool Jobster, Political Organizer Mary McClelland who works for Rock  the Vote.

If you’re looking to turn off your computer and go home at 5pm every night, then working in the field to organize voter registration may not be the Cool Job for you.   However, if you have a passion for politics and think it is especially important to help young people become active in the voting process then you’ll not only enjoy today’s interview — you may just stop by at Rock the Vote and ask what you can do to get involved!

With a presidential inauguration just days away, the timing couldn’t have been better for a peek  behind the scenes at the type of effort and dedication it took to actually “rock” the vote.    Thanks for being today’s Cool Jobster, Mary!

When people ask you “what do you do?” how do you describe your job?

I work for Rock the Vote which is an organization who’s mission is to engage and build the political power of young people.  We use music, pop culture and new technologies to bring (and keep) them in the process.  My official title is ‘Deputy Political Director for Field Operations’ at Rock the Vote or as I lovingly refer to as the DPDFO (pronounced ‘dipped-fo’) – but rarely use that title as in my tenure here I’ve seen the organization grow from 4 people to 20 in the midst of the insanity that was the ’08 election, so my role and responsibilities shifted constantly.  In my day-to-day I oversee our field operations which means in election years I organize large scale voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts and work with our volunteer base around the country.  Within that there is a lot of partnership work with other political organizations as well as implementing new technologies in our effort to organize 18-29 year olds in the political process.  Now that the presidential election is over we are shifting our focus to issue advocacy to make sure the issues we care about get implemented.

What are the things about your job that you love?

I love the ability to be creative and implement new ideas – we have to break through the clutter to reach a younger audience and we can’t be boring.  I love thinking about how to use new technologies to politicize people. The partnerships can be hilarious everything from WWE (yes, the wrestlers) to NFL players to actors and musicians.  And of course the added bonus is I get to go to a lot of concerts for ‘work’.  There are worse things than having to go to South by Southwest and having an all-access pass or having the Beastie Boys perform at your Inauguration party.

What are the things about your job that you hate?

Rock the Vote has been around for 19 years and is a name that people have usually heard of (I was actually caught off guard recently when a younger person hadn’t heard of us – a nice lesson) – with that comes some unrealistic expectations.  Many people believe we are an arm of MTV but we actually have always been an independent, non-profit, non-partisan organization with a limited budget – I constantly have to say no to people who think we are flush with cash or expect some merchandise or staff to attend their event.  At our peak in the election year we had 20 people to run a program that registered over 2 million people and implemented huge programs so the strain on resources is constant.


What education, training, vocation or just plain luck would someone have to have in order to get a job like yours?

For me it was luck and a passion for the issues.  I have a B.A. in English Literature which does not scream political organizer but when I graduated I ended up with a position in California working for an environmental organization, when I moved to DC a few years later I stayed in the political field working for a non-profit that focused on campaign finance reform.  Once you are in the DC political community it becomes quite small and through various networks you are able to work for different organizations on different issues.  I ended up working for a group called Young Voter Strategies in the ’06 election cycle and coming out of that the two organizations decided to integrate to add a political and research departments to Rock the Vote – I was in the right place at the right time and feel incredibly lucky.

For someone who would like to get into politics there are so many opportunities to get involved in campaigns if you are willing to start towards the bottom.  There are many organizations that train organizers and give you entry into the political sphere – even volunteering with a campaign to learn the ropes could score a position.  The type of degree you have is not as important as the type of passion and work ethic you have – these are not 9-5 positions and most likely don’t pay very well, but you can go home at the end of the day and feel like you did something.

What is the funniest story you can think of that involves your professional training or your job?

There are so many it’s hard to pick just one!  There could be the time where I went to the Baltimore Raven’s training facilities to register their players to vote or the time I ended up driving around Jack Johnson through the city of Richmond talking about environmentally friendly burial processes or getting mobbed at a festival in Venice Beach doing voter registration with WWE wrestlers or being a part of ringing the opening bell at NASDAQ on Super Tuesday.  A seriously crazy year.

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