July 25, 2008
I cannot believe this is my last night here in Georgia. People back home told me the time would fly by. I did not realize just how quickly that time would pass. I think back to my first night in Georgia and I cannot help but compare it to this night. I arrived in Atlanta dehydrated, exhausted, abandoned at a MARTA station, and unfamiliar with the area. I was anxious about meeting my supporter housing and wary of the upcoming training—anxious about a thousand small details. I remember collapsing into bed and listening to the thick chorus of crickets, already struggling to breathe as my sinuses rejected the different, Georgia air. I was worried. I was overwhelmed. I was in a strange town with strangers.
I am now in a completely different house than the one I first moved into. After some reshuffling during the first week, I came to live with Matie and her husband. I fall asleep on a folded-up futon, and I still hear the crickets outside my window. But I am no longer a stranger. I have met hundreds of people over the past six weeks and developed good relationships with several of them. I have been responsible for a specific city and have organized the communities and neighborhoods within. I’ve been to every corner of Gwinnett—from Between, Georgia to the edge of Stone Mountain/Dekalb. I helped staff a town hall event, where Senator Obama spoke to 2,000 people. I’ve ridden MARTA up and down the lines, registering people to vote. I have been forced to grow and stretch. Never mind stepping out of one’s comfort zone- I have had to jump and leap out of my comfort zone on a daily basis. After a while the phone calls began to get easier. The prospect of speaking at a house meeting became less frightening and far more exciting. I discovered a kind of resilient confidence – a confidence that continued to grow even as I met brick wall after brick wall. Now, six weeks later, I leave Georgia with a sense of accomplishment, of great personal growth.
But enough about me. The best part of this experience has been the people. My team is one of the most diverse and colorful groups in both personality and background. We have texture, flavor. There is Matie. A New Orleans-native and high school government teacher, Matie has been my closest friend here in Georgia. During our third week, the two of us were dubbed “the dynamic duo,” as we have been inseparable. We’ve spent many late nights entering data at our makeshift office in her living room, alternately sipping wine and coffee. We have hopped clubs for voter registration, created “Wanna Vote?” t-shirts on a whim at midnight, accidentally crashed a staff “hang-out” session downtown Atlanta, debated issues of politics, education and race, and celebrated the end of good weeks with amaretto sours. We witnessed one another’s breakdowns, giggled at early-morning radio en route to the office, and listened to each other when our frustration level was about to exceed its limits. Matie has been an inspiration and constant encouragement these past six weeks, and it will be strange for her presence to suddenly be absent as I board the plane tomorrow.
Then there is John—the most enthusiastic, fired up person on our team. He’s a pastor, and it’s evident in the way he is able to welcome new people and encourage them to join the campaign efforts. This guy has no inhibitions and will take his “Register to Vote Here” sign with him to parks, MARTA stations, churches, bars, Wal-Marts, restaurants…so much enthusiasm can be overwhelming. But we have Jacob to balance things out. Reserved and quiet, Jacob has been the organizer behind the scenes. He’s often silent and off working by himself, but his quirky sense of humor occasionally surfaces – usually in the middle of a team meeting. With a generous spirit and diplomatic air, Jacob has smoothed situations that could have easily turned ugly.
Nick is the fifth fellow on my team to remain with the program to the very end. The youngest at 20, Nick has aspirations of becoming a music journalist and absentmindedly sings throughout the day. He’s our traveling jukebox, covering the latest hip hop, classic rock, and even country. The best part about Nick is his easy smile and the way in which he can lighten any situation.
Any finally, there is Dan – our fearless leader. He’s from upstate New York and paces through the office halls with a golf club in hand whenever he’s stressed. Or planning our next big event. I’m going to miss Dan’s random humor, his quotes of the day, his idiosyncrasies—like the way in which he tosses a racquetball back and forth during conversations and planning sessions.
I haven’t even mentioned the other field organizers or the all-star volunteers: Tawny, Kevin, Olivia, Cathy, Robin, Mark, Joy, Vin, and Danja, to name a few. This experience would not have been the same without them, which I suppose can be said of any adventure and the people met along the way. To continue to write about my reflections would constitute an out-an-out novel (and I’m not exaggerating). I do have one more entry which I’ll post before I board my plane tomorrow. I’m saving it because, well, it’s worth having its own entry. Other than that…I’m finished in Georgia for the time being. In the words of an anonymous radio caller back in Portland, “It’s been epic. Totally epic.”
July 14, 2008
Heroes. No, not the t.v. show. I’m talking about the individuals we admire and aspire to emulate. I have a pocketful of heroes: Edward R. Murrow, FDR, Queen Rania Al Abdullah, my Dad. Another of my heroes is Senator Obama, and I had the opportunity to see him last Tuesday at a town hall meeting in Powder Springs, GA. Because I helped staff the event, I was in the back with the traveling press, peering over cameras and laptops to catch a glimpse of the man himself. I had seen him before with four of my close friends at a rally in Portland’s Memorial Coliseum- one of the greatest moments of my college years. The town hall meeting was different. A good different. Rather than rousing speeches and screaming crowds, the Senator interacted with the attendees and invited questions. I cannot think of a more nerve-racking prospect than opening the floor to any question, particularly when many of the guests were undecided voters. But Senator Obama addressed the people’s questions and concerns with grace, candor, and even humor. On every issue, he outlined his policies but then ended with a charge to the people. He challenged everyone gathered in that high school gymnasium to take ownership of the issues. To not just ask for change, but be a part of that change. On the issue of education, yes we need better programs for our schools and accountability of teachers. But, he reminded the audience, parents need to take responsibility as well. Don’t pass off all responsibility to the teachers and then complain when your child struggles or fails. He was adamant in saying that parents need to be involved with their child’s education, to take an active role. He stressed the importance of bilingualism in this country, joking that the only foreign language Americans know is the phrase “merci beaucoup.” And on the issue of student dropout rates, he said that while schools should do more to prevent dropouts, students need to take ownership of their education and stay in school. Many teenagers need a wake-up call. “You think you’re LeBron James? You’re not,” he said to cheers and laughter. I loved his honesty. It was refreshing. The hall meeting reminded me why I support this man, and why I believe he should be the next President of the United States.
There seems to be a lot of emphasis on heroes in recent pop culture – or superheroes at least. Think of all the graphic novels and comic books adapted into movies: Batman, Spiderman, X-Men, Iron Man, Fantastic Four, Incredible Hulk…whoever tapped into that market must be a millionaire by now. The notion of superheroes is tremendously appealing to people, and I suppose I can understand why. The underlying theme is that anyone – even the most ordinary-looking individual – can become a hero. Peter Parker was a nerdy photographer before becoming Spiderman. And the whole premise of Heroes is about a group of ordinary people who discover they hold extraordinary powers. Overly idealistic and a little silly, the idea of everyone having “superhero potential” is still charming. Yesterday I realized there might be a smidgen of truth to the ordinary/extraordinary superhero theme. Yesterday, I discovered my superhero alter ego.
I was sitting at a picnic table beside the Mountain Park skate park. Teenagers filtered through the park, and a certain pack decided to camp out two tables over. They saw my “Register to Vote Here” poster, decorated with red and blue markers (my artwork at its finest), and yelled questions my way every now and then.
“Hey, are you here all the time?”
“Are you, like, a volunteer?”
“Are you seriously registering people to vote?”
Yeah, dude, I seriously am.
I struck a rapport with this ragtag collection of skaters, and three of them registered to vote. Three registrations is hardly an extraordinary number, but for those three teenagers, it was. Hours later, as I gathered my things to leave, one of the boys shouted, “See you later, voter girl.”
Voter Girl. It’s a far cry from Spiderman. Or a certain Senator from Illinois. But I’ll take it. (What’s more, I kinda like it.)
July 6, 2008
The Fourth of July has always been one of my favorite holidays, right up there next to Christmas. I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps it’s the memories I had growing up: picnics and Frisbees, hot sun and iced tea, barbeques and sparklers. My mom used to make “Red, White and Blue” cake, consisting of angel food cake, raspberries, blueberries and whipped cream. Most years I would sit on my roof and watch the neighborhood fireworks, and if I felt particularly patriotic, I would venture downtown and participate in the massive celebration at Ft. Vancouver, where the six degrees of separation drops to three.
This year might have ruined July 4th for me. That is a drastic statement, but I feel as though I have seen another side of the holiday- one that angers and grieves me. I was out registering voters this past Friday. My team and our volunteers spread out between three different events. Parades, festivals, concerts…you’d think the day would be pure gold for registering people to vote. Not so. I ran into countless people who were eligible to vote, but were not registered, nor did they want to be. I’ve heard the same negative response before, but it stood out more than usual on July 4. I was startled at the juxtaposition of patriotic-colored clothing and the complete lack of desire to take an active part in this country. The country everyone was celebrating on Friday, on our Independence Day. I thought of Thomas Jefferson’s words as I walked from one family picnic to another, “My God! How little do my countrymen know what precious blessings they are in possession of, and which no other people on earth enjoy!” I don’t understand how someone can attend a Fourth of July celebration, take part in the festivities, and yet refuse to be a voice in their communities and country. Thanks for being an American.
As evening fell, thousands of people lined the streets, camping out on blankets and sipping lemonade. Children twirled around with sparklers. People were happy, relaxed. Yes, July 4 is a time for celebration. But it is also a day to remember why we are celebrating. We don’t have an LRA rampaging through our towns, nor do we live in constant fear of bombs dropping from the sky or blowing up our local marketplaces. We have freedom of the press (unlike Russia where at least two journalists were recently killed by snipers). Even with the difficult economic times we’re experiencing right now, we still have freedoms that certain parts of the world can only dream about. Too many people take our rights and liberty for granted. And what’s worse, many complain about everything that is wrong with this country without 1) pausing to see the good or potential good or 2) getting involved with the political process and their local communities. Don’t complain if you don’t vote.
Thomas Paine said it best when he declared that those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must undergo the fatigue of supporting it. The most discouraging aspect of July 4th was that I saw a whole lot of reaping with little concern of supporting and maintaining that freedom.
July 6, 2008
Posted by Heather McLendon under Campaign Diaries 1 Comment
I called Mellow Mushroom this past week to see if we could have permission to register voters in their parking lot. And, lo and behold, Curt answered the phone. Not only did he remember us but he pretty much gave us a carte blanche to register voters there whenever we want. Matie and I stopped by Wednesday night- they had just closed, but there was still a circle of teenagers in the parking lot. I was able to register three of them, and when I turned around, I saw Matie chatting with Curt. Closing duties could wait, it appeared, as he stood outside with a dish towel slung over his shoulder, swapping jokes and anecdotes with us. He seemed genuinely happy to see us, and we told him we would be back next week for Mushroom’s legendary trivia night. One conversation at a time…sometimes that’s all it takes.