In which we say goodbye to a President…

On the night of November 4, 2008 I sat on the tile floor of a hostel in the Dominican Republic and watched the election results come in. I was packed shoulder to shoulder with fellow Peace Corps volunteers. We had all come into the city from our various communities to take a hot shower and watch the climax of what had been a momentous election season. There were about fifty us packed into a room that could comfortably have held twenty (one of those fifty happened to be a beautiful young lady who would soon become my girlfriend, and eventually my wife, but most of you know that story already). We cheered when the election was called for Obama, and we wept as we listened to his victory speech with its call to service. We desired with all of our hearts to answer that call. We had already answered that call, idealistically living in houses without electricity or running water, partnering with people very different from ourselves to make the world a little bit better.

We drank rum, smoked cigars, and stayed awake until sunrise, heady with idealism at the possibilities that this new world could bring. I wrote some of my thoughts the next day.

Tonight I watched as President Obama gave his farewell address, and thought about that young volunteer and his friends, and the world they lived in and the world we now live in. A lot has happened, and a lot looks different. I did not watch tonight’s speech in a crowded hostel, but in a comfortable house on a couch with a dog on my lap. I did watch it with that same beautiful young woman, and we kept an eye on the baby monitor, hoping that the newest addition to our household would let us finish watching the speech without interruption. In 2008 I stayed up all night; tonight I am hoping to stay awake long enough to write my thoughts. Back then I woke up each day knowing that adventure beckoned, and that anything could happen. Now I have a job with a slightly more demanding schedule (interviews start at 8 sharp).

Yes, the viewer of the speech is a bit different, as is the world he lives in. But much of what the President said tonight resonated with me just as strongly as it did back then. And not the partisan stuff. It was the call to civic participation, and for taking our responsibility as citizens seriously. The call to pursue equality for all. The call to maintain dialogue with those who are different from us, regardless of how difficult or disheartening it might become.

I thought about the amazing things I’ve had a front row seat to see during the last eight years. I got to partner with poor Dominican farmers who are working to preserve the forest and river around their community, and succeeding. I got to help turn a ruined urban factory site into a beautiful park that is literally serving as a bridge between communities. I watched as elderly Luddites in Northern Wisconsin figured out ways to bring broadband Internet into their rural communities, to bring back jobs and rekindle a dying economy. Now I have the honor of watching a diverse and brilliant team of my fellow Americans work their tails off every day to adjudicate visas, protecting the security of our country while also reuniting families and growing the economy. Everywhere I’ve gone I’ve had the privilege of seeing, knowing, and working with people who are immensely creative and passionately motivated to make the world better through their work and sacrifice. I share Obama’s belief that our country, and the world, is at it’s best when we come together around common goals, focusing on what unites rather than what divides. I believed it then. I believe it now. And I’m not even tired.

My mom called me after the speech, inspired by what she heard, yet discouraged by so much of what we see in our country these days. There is division. There is dissonance. There is ignorance, on both sides of the aisle, regarding who our neighbors are and what they stand for. She asked me what she should do to make things better during these challenging times. I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m sure you the reader have plenty of other ideas (which I’d love to hear about in the comments), but here are some of my thoughts:

  • Put down the smart phone. I need to get better at this myself. There is a whole world of things to see and people to talk with. Reading is good…but sharing and re-sharing articles, or getting into arguments with strangers, seldom did much to improve the world.
  • Get involved with the local discussion. All the positive change I’ve ever seen happen in communities (whether it was in third world countries, big cities, or small towns) started with a group of concerned citizens talking about a problem and figuring out how to act together, in small ways, to make it better. And then things snowballed, and small change became big change. I guarantee you that within two miles of your house there is a group of people (probably local elected officials) who meet regularly to talk about how to fund the public library, or what to do with abandoned building, or how to improve the park this year. I also guarantee you that there are rows of chairs in that room, reserved for members of the public, that usually go unfilled. Get on google. Find the meetings. Show up. Share your opinion. Before you know it you’ll be helping to fix something real. Or you could play candy crush for two hours a day.
  • Get to know your elected officials. They are nice people, even if they belong to that other party. Almost every municipal, county, or state elected official I’ve ever met has been thrilled to spend time sitting with constituents talking (and even disagreeing) about issues. Buy them coffee. Have them over for dinner. Get to know them. You could become one of those people who they call on when they are trying to figure something out. And they might actually take your call when you disagree with them. I’ve seen it happen so many times.
  • Run for office! There are so many non-partisan elections at the neighborhood and town level (especially in rural places) where there is only one candidate on the ballot and where you’d only have to go to a couple of meetings a month. Give it a shot! If you lose you lose, and if you win you get to help build something.
  • Get a job in government. State, local, federal. Yes, there’s a lot of bureaucracy, but it’s amazing how much of the business of making the world better is done by modest, hardworking people in cubicles who are not being paid nearly enough. Public servants rock. Become one!
  • Hang around people who are not like you. This is why social media stinks. We friend people who share our culture, education level, politics…and we end up just looking in the mirror when we think we’re looking at the world. Get out. Make some new friends. Challenge yourself to see the world from someone else’s perspective. If we all did think how good we would be at making things better.

I am sad to see Obama step off the stage, but such is life in this American Democracy. I’m optimistic about the times to come. I continue to be amazed by the work that my friends and family are doing, in big ways and small, all over the world. The starry eyed outlook of that young Peace Corps volunteer sitting on a floor in 2008 may have taken on new forms (nine to five job and all), but the idealism remains. The world can be better. The world will be better. We, my friends, will see to it.