“I had always wanted to do something,” said O’Brien. “I didn’t even know Moms existed until I went to a movie event at the First Religious Society in Newburyport [and saw their] flyer. I met so many great people, survivors and others, and I was really inspired,” she said.
Tackling Gun Violence
In fact, O’Brien’s own family history might have predicted this particular entry to activism. Her dad was a Boston cab driver. While he was on the job, someone shot him four times. He survived, but one shot blinded his left eye. Nine years later, he died of a heart attack at the relatively young age of 55.
“I think the trauma of the shooting weakened him and definitely contributed to his heart attack,” she explained.
Of course, O’Brien is also a mom, married 28 years with four grown children. So, working to “help end gun violence and build safer communities” with Moms Demand Action was a natural place for O’Brien to enter the activist fray. The group is part of Everytown for Gun Safety — a movement of almost 10 million people and the largest gun violence prevention organization in America. In addition to Moms, Everytown includes Students Demand Action, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and the Everytown Survivor Network.
“Gun violence is a huge problem in America,” she said. “And since it has affected me personally, maybe it’s not surprising that I noticed and responded to that flyer and found my way to Moms.”
As often happens with activists, things ramped up quickly once O’Brien got involved. She found her groove with phonebanking. Participating led to hosting, hosting to training hosts, and today she leads phonebanks and host trainings multiple times each week.
“I really like facilitating other people’s activism,” O’Brien explained. “Especially during COVID lockdowns, phonebanking was a way to meet people all over the country working toward the same goals. I felt part of a conversation Americans needed to have with each other.”
Shortly after O’Brien began volunteering for Moms in 2018, she met I-RISE Newburyport member Deb Hart-Klein when the two of them carpooled to a Moms gun safety rally in Portland, Maine. Hart-Klein swiftly recruited her to I-RISE. First, O’Brien attended one of their meetings to promote Moms work ahead of the midterm elections. She liked the people and their mission. She was hooked.
Expanding Phone Banking Efforts
Soon, O’Brien expanded her phonebanking focus from gun violence prevention to voting rights, voter registration, and all the other actions I-RISE was involved with, including– supporting the For the People Act, the Voting Rights Act, and ending the filibuster. O’Brien found the work really gratifying, and she could see tangible results. In 2021, she took over organizing all I-RISE phonebanks.
“One of my favorite stories was a time we were calling into Texas to make sure people were registered, knew the election dates and voting locations, and were able to vote,” said O’Brien. “Someone talked with an older gentleman who didn’t have a way to get to the polls. Although we were thousands of miles away, through our network we got him a ride.”
In 2020, ahead of the general election, Swing Blue Alliance contacted O’Brien at I-RISE. Her first action was cohosting a Florida phonebank with SBA volunteer Jeff Lobo. Recently, she hosted a phonebank to register Democrats in Pennsylvania, then another to register them in Florida.
Even as she leads I-RISE and works with SBA, O’Brien is still fully involved with Moms phonebanking efforts, partnering with organizations including Field Team 6 and Common Cause. As part of the national Gun Sense Action Network, O’Brien leads MA Moms phonebankers who call voters in red states twice a week to urge them to call their legislators to pass gun safety legislation.
“Zoom has made the training so much easier for participants and leaders,” she explained. “You don’t even have to leave your house, and the technical tools make it all so much more manageable for everyone. We advertise the phonebank events through the Slack channels of our partner organizations, News-MAGIC, the SBA calendar, and Mobilize,” O’Brien continued. “Our callers span the country. In fact, at this point I only have one regular phonebanker from Newburyport!
If this sounds daunting, O’Brien reminds us that every action counts, every volunteer hour makes a difference. The 2022 midterms are coming, and we really need to elect Dems and advance Democratic programs and ideals. And while people often express fear of phonebanking, O’Brien encourages us all to “just dip your toe in the water.”
“Come take a training and see,” she says. “And if you don’t want to make calls yourself, you can always become a trainer!”
Interested in organizing volunteers with Swing Blue Alliance? Learn more
Marilyn Hirsch is a freelance copy and editorial writer based in MetroWest Boston.