Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Walk for Barack

This weekend I walked for Barack. Well, more specifically, I volunteered to go canvassing, door-to-door, on behalf of the Obama '08 presidential campaign. Obama's HQ called June 9 a national "Walk for Change" day--one in which thousands of Obama supporters would talk to their neighbors about the changes they wanted to see in the U.S. and how Obama's plans, most specifically related to healthcare and the war in Iraq, could be part of this national movement of changing the way politics are currently being done.

I have to admit that when I realized exactly what I would be doing--knocking on doors and actually distributing leaflets -- I balked. I HATE when people come to my door and suspect that most people feel the same way. On the other hand, I had already committed to this event (it was being sponsored, locally, by a woman who asked people to do an hour's committment, and how can you say no to an hour of your life for a good cause?), and more importantly, I had decided that Obama was the candidate I wanted to support, both for this presidential election but overall, I just believe that he's someone who has a vision and a plan, and whether it's this election or another, he's someone I feel is committed to changing the way we do politics in the U.S. (and he has a vision I share, I suppose I should say more directly).

Anyway, I did it. I figured it would be a good learning experience for me to do this--I had never canvassed for any cause, political or otherwise, and I also thought it would give me empathy for those who do go door to door (in my neighborhood it's generally people with environmental causes and sometimes breast cancer advocacy). I paired up with another volunteer, a young woman who was a Southern U. graduate, married, and mother of 2 children. We hit it off and found a good stride in our approach to people--namely, we didn't follow the "script" of the campaign, although we didn't go into people's homes either (a safety precaution on everyone's part and a wise one), and we were friendly and brief--but we also lingered if people wanted to talk.

What I discovered about this particular neighborhood (and everything is local so I don't want to make larger generalizations about all of America or "the South") is that people were exceedingly friendly. I mean sure, there were some people who were clearly annoyed. But at least two homes offered us water, everyone took our literature (everyone who answered their doors that is), no one was rude, and one guy even signed up and took another pamphlet to sign up his friend. I also have to say that doing this canvassing was another reminder about labels and stereotypes. I mean, the guy we signed up did not look like someone I would have thought would be as enthusiastic as he was for Obama. He answered the door half-clothed and without shoes--he had on a pair of camoflauge shorts, pulled low over a pair of white BVDs, an inch of which was clearly visible. His bare chest revealed a large tattoo on a shoulder and arm, and his race (white) and age (early 20s) suggested college student. Yet it turned out that he was older than he looked (something I get because people often mistake me for being a good 8 years younger than I am), he was a business owner, married with children, and believed in progressive politics.

And right after we signed up this guy, the next home we went to, a middle-aged African American man with his wife and father, expressed skepticism that America was ready to elect a black president. When my partner and I introduced ourselves as canvassing on behalf of Obama, the man gave a cynical snort but also smiled and invited us into his open garage (by the way, it was SOOOO HOT--about 92 degrees in the shade) and we talked to him, and his family, for a bit about why we were supporting Obama and listened to his doubts about the country's racial openness.

It's a skepticism I share. I don't know if the average American voter wants to elect a black president. But what I told this gentleman and what I believe, and what got me out on a 92 degree afternoon, knocking on people's doors, volunteering for the first time in my life to canvass for a cause or a person--what I believe in my heart of hearts is that I want to and need to believe that we, as a nation, are ready to move ahead in terms of racial politics. That we want to learn from the past and we want to learn from each other. And while I know that racism will not be erased so easily by a few ethnic studies classes or multicultural fairs, I also know that I am supporting Obama because I have to have faith. I have to believe and to envision the country I want rather than the country I suspect I have. I have to actually practice what I preach rather than bemoaning the state of race and politics that we currently live in. I'm not trying to sound either overly optimistic nor naive; rather, what other choice do I have? I think the time of talking is done and there needs to be a time for action, and I don't propose that an hour of walking and knocking on people's doors meant that I changed the next election or convinced anyone beyond what they were already thinking. But it was important for me. And maybe, just maybe, the example of someone going door to door on one of the hottest days of the summer, maybe that will make one of these 25 households we actually spoke to pause and think that change can happen.

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