The building at 301 East 9th St. is inconspicuous. Two blocks off of Charlotte’s main street, the space is a balance between an old warehouse and an abandoned office space. Loading docks in the back of the building have been plastered closed and carpet has been ripped up in the office area, and a sticky layer of adhesive from the old carpet cements our chairs to the floor.
This was the location of the 2012 Democratic National Convention Host Committee Volunteer Headquarters and my temporary home during the weeks leading up to the convention. Sixteen-thousand volunteers, including interns like myself, worked all across Charlotte for more than three months to organize the early September event and prepare the Time Warner Cable Arena for the thousands of delegates, media representatives and honored guests who would soon arrive. Our purpose was to make Charlotte seem like the best city in the world, if only for one week.
On the second day of the convention, a middle-aged black woman marched into Volunteer Headquarters. She wore an elaborate, floor-length dress of deep red, burnt orange and gold and introduced herself to me as Harlem’s Queen Mother. She stood squarely in front of me, stretched her hands onto my shoulders and looked deep into my eyes. She explained that she had seen Michelle Obama speaking on television the night before and felt she needed to do something more to serve her country. “This is not the time to sit on the couch and wait,” she said. So she bought a plane ticket from New York and arrived at the convention in Charlotte the next day.
Harlem’s Queen Mother, otherwise known as Delois Blakely and Ambassador of Goodwill to Africa, was just one of the thousands of volunteers who helped make the convention possible, in more than one way. More important than the physical tasks they completed each day was the energy and inspiration they spread across Charlotte.
“I am here to serve, tell me what to do,” Blakely said. These were the kinds of statements that inspired me and helped make my often-tiring job a little easier. The most amazing part was that she asked nothing in return, except for a chance to make a difference.
Although volunteer efforts are essential to the convention’s success, they are also the most overlooked part of the production. Volunteers are the silent army of helpers who dedicate countless hours, weeks and even months to ensure that the convention flows effortlessly for the thousands on-site and millions watching on television. I was immersed in and energized by an assembly of passionate people; groups chanted, “Fired up! And Ready to Go!” throughout the convention. Their dedication was more than just inspiring—it was contagious. In this environment, even three hours of sleep per night could not slow me down.
Surviving on pure emotion and excitement is not sustainable long-term, but the experience was truly extraordinary. The people I met and the rush I felt from accomplishing something that required such an enormous collective effort was unlike anything I had ever experienced and can only be found in places of immeasurable inspiration.