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Two Obama alumni share their stories on stage at the 2023 Democracy Forum

A black man, with medium skin tone, Jesse Thomas talks with his hand up into a microphone. Separated by a white line, a black woman, with dark skin tone in a blue suit, Representative Lauren Underwood, stands smiling.

In November 2023, the Obama Foundation hosted its second Democracy Forum bringing together innovative leaders and creators to address some of the pressing issues facing our democracy. Our second Democracy Forum coincided with the 15th anniversary of President Obama’s 2008 election night victory, which was a perfect opportunity to get the band back together! 

To celebrate, alumni Jesse Thomas and Representative Lauren Underwood joined Kal Penn and Jen Psaki on stage to talk about their work to continue to push progress forward. 

Jesse Thomas

Two men are standing on a stage in an indoor auditorium. There are spotlights above them and at their feet is a black speaker. Behind the two men is a blue wall, in the middle of the wall is the Obama 15th anniversary logo. The logo has a big number 15 in the center in the color light blue. In the logo are red stripes. The first man in the picture is Kal Penn: an olive complexioned man with dark brown hair and a dark brown goatee. He is wearing a brown and black plaid suit with a black shirt underneath the suit and black leather boots. He is holding a microphone, in his right hand, to his face. The second man is Jesse Thomas: an olive complexioned man with a bald head, black framed glasses, and a black goatee. He is wearing a denim blue blazer, a white button down shirt, dark blue pants, and white sneakers. He is also holding a microphone in his right hand.

“You know, I keep trying to make a change. I'm addicted.”

2008: Field Organizer, New Hampshire and Regional Field Organizer, Philadelphia

2023: Chief Impact & Learning Officer, OneTen


Fresh to the campaign world, Jesse Thomas jumped in at Obama for America as a field organizer in New Hampshire, galvanized by the message of then-Senator Barack Obama and the potency of traditional and digital grassroots outreach. 

“I started the campaign in New Hampshire, and we believed with all our hearts and souls that we were going to change the world. No one else did. But we put our hearts and souls into it.”

Very quickly, Jesse realized that the work being done to elect Senator Obama was more than a symbolic victory: it was a call to arms for people, centered on the message of hope. 

“...They saw Barack win Iowa and they believed, sometimes more than we did. They saw him lose in New Hampshire, and then took it upon themselves to make sure he made it to the White House. Sometimes it felt like they were organizing us.” 

For the next few months, Jesse organized in four more states, subsequently ending in Philadelphia as the Regional Field Organizer. 

“I went from struggling to fill a house party to shutting down Philadelphia for thousands of people at a time to come see Bruce Springsteen or Jay-Z and Beyonce or Senator Obama like five or six times in a single day… I went from knocking hundreds of doors and making hundreds of phone calls a day for Mr. Rob Hill to commanding an army of thousands of volunteers, in one of America's largest cities, at the age of 24.”

Whether you voted for the first time, or watched your grandparents vote for the first time, whether you caucused in the Iowa winter, or knocked on doors in the Florida heat, whether you celebrated with thousands in Grant Park or tuned in from around the world, we heard your stories.

The sights. The sounds. What you were wearing. How you felt. Who you called. The moments you remember most.  Together, we captured the emotions and significance of that November night and the work that made it possible, culminating in an extremely cold January day on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

The organizing training I got from Obama for America was the best skills training I ever got in my life...We learned how to look at big problems, break them down into tangible steps, relentlessly measure our progress, and use data to inform our strategy. That's how you solve really big problems. That's how you make the impossible possible.”

Jesse Thomas

Representative Lauren Underwood

Two women are standing on a stage in an indoor auditorium. Behind the two women is a blue wall, split in two: on one side of the wall is the Obama 15th anniversary logo. The logo has a big number 15 in the center in the color light blue. In the logo are red stripes. On the other side of the wall is the bio of Representative Lauren Underwood that reads, “Lauren Underwood, Representative, .” The first woman in the picture is Jen Psaki: she has a pale complexion and bright red hair cut into a bob. She is smiling and clapping her hands together. She is wearing a blue blazer with gold buttons on top of a black turtleneck, black pants, and black shoes with a thin heel. The second woman in the photo is Representative Lauren Underwood: she has brown skin, dark curly hair that lands at the nape of her neck, and lucite/clear glasses. She is smiling and waving to the crowd. She is wearing a royal blue blazer and pants with a white blouse underneath, and black leather loafers on her feet.

“What I've learned is that we have a great opportunity to make a tremendous difference.”

2006: Intern, Senator Barack Obama 

2023: United States Representative, Illinois


At age 19, Illinois native Lauren Underwood worked as an intern for then-Senator Barack Obama while working on her bachelors degree in nursing at the University of Michigan. From the beginning, Rep. Underwood was passionate about public service and committed to supporting her community, especially around health care. After finishing school, Rep. Underwood joined the Federal Government, eventually serving as Senior Advisor at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in 2014. 

Carrying the Baton Today 

After her time working for the Obama administration, Rep. Underwood continued to support communities across the country around accessible health care at the HHS, Next Level Health, and Georgetown University. But in 2017, Underwood decided to run for Congress after the then-incumbent of her district voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Following a whirlwind campaign, Underwood was elected to the House of Representatives, becoming the youngest Black woman to ever serve in Congress. 

Rep. Underwood credits lessons she learned from the administration, as well as her fellow alumni, to her successful victory in 2018 and subsequent re-election. 

“We've had some incredible help and it's come from the expertise [of alumni] that helped get us across the finish line...It's been a great joy to lean on these folks who hope and change.”

Today Rep. Underwood acknowledges that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to protect our democracy and promote democratic values around the world. Yet she looks towards the next generation—like those in the Obama Foundation programming network—to take up the mantle and bring forth change.

We are experiencing the microaggressive threats to democracy…there was once a framework where as long as you voted, you felt like you were helping to save our democracy. That time is gone. And so we need to bring that 2008 campaign energy, that dedication, that commitment every single day, because we have to fight every day for our democracy.”

Representative Lauren Underwood (D-IL 14)

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The Barack Obama Foundation is registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization (EIN 46-4950751).

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