“We as a People Will Get There.”

“The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term, but America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you, we as a people will get there.”
– President-elect Barack Obama, November 4, 2008, Chicago, IL

I am simply overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude by the results of the election last night. The depth of my reaction has actually surprised me – although it seems that people, literally all around the world, are also being swept up by the relief, the promise, and the hope of what this historic Presidential election means. I’ve watched some of the CNN analysis, read the news updates, been part of the buzz of excitement still humming here in Chicago – but I think the ramifications of the United States electing its first black President by a huge margin of votes have only just begun to unfold.

I’ve been asked by several people about my experience of election night here in Chicago and it made me realize that I want to remember the details of that journey that made a truly deep impression on me. I went downtown last night after watching much of the electoral map updates with a group of friends on tv at our election party at home. While driving down along the lake toward Grant Park, listening to my “Yes We Can:Voices of Hope” CD with our windows rolled down, we got a call telling us that McCain had officially conceeded in a very gracious and intentional speech. (The next song playing in our car happened to be, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.”) After parking a dozen or so blocks away from the center of the rally, my brother and our friend and I quickly snaked our way through downtown Chicago streets and traffic to try to get as close as we could to the event in time for Obama’s speech. Throngs of people were also out, many due to normal city night life hustle and bustle, and many pulled out into the night just for the election excitement. As we rounded the corner onto Randolph Street, the crowds we had been navigating through gave way to a city street party. We were in the middle of sight more exuberant then New Years Eve – taxis honking, people chanting and yelling on every sidewalk corner and down every street way, songs and drums filling the air, and limos cruising slowly so that people could stand up through the sunroof opening and gleefully wave Obama signs. Friends were texting and calling me as I hurriedly walked along, many of whom had such personal stakes in what was happening that night and who I was so excited to celebrate with. The voices on my phone conveyed the same emotion and excitement as I heard in my own words, and I loved sharing the sounds and atmosphere of the city with them for a moment over our cell connection.

I couldn’t stop grinning as we kept pressing on toward Grant Park, along with thousands of other happy and excited pedestrians. Kids of all ages accompanied parents in the rush to the park, bikes whizzed by carrying laughing and cheering riders, and a man in a wheelchair was helped along through the crowd. Cars routinely stopped on the side of Michigan Avenue with passengers wanting to high-five and cheer along with the sidewalk crowds, while vendors hawked colorful t-shirt designs featuring the new President’s smiling face and buttons saying “Yes We Can” on every corner. Just being there, feeling this pulse of joy and joining thousands of other people who all had the same reaction, was absolutely phenomenal. I couldn’t stop smiling all the way down the “magnificant mile” – even when I got pulled into a (intoxicated) stranger’s photo op on the street so he could point to my Obama/Biden t-shirt to commemorate the moment. 🙂

The three of us easily found our way across the bridge just south of the Art Institute and decided to try to get a glimpse of the speech from a nearby jumbo-tron screen instead of heading directly into the center of the Grant Park gathering. As we turned east and entered the gathered masses, music was blaring, people were dancing and smoking, and the warm weather welcomed young and old assembling together under the canopy of fall leaves and bright park lights covering the lawn. We took pictures, marveled at the size of it all, and wondered aloud how Barack and his family must be feeling right now. How do you prepare to accept your role as the next President of the United States? How do you hold the weight and expectations and sheer gratitude of a country – no, a world – who is watching you as the first to pave the path ahead for so many: people of color, children of single moms, those who have had to fight poverty and overcome in the struggle – how can the gravity of this once in a lifetime moment fit into a person’s brain?

After finding a decent view of the screen and learning that our cell phones no longer could get any coverage (due to the massive overuse of the towers, I think), the music on the speakers fell quiet and the screen lit up to show a row of waving flags in the night breeze behind a podium. An announcer began his introduction of Obama and his family, and our crowd erupted into claps and hoots as flags waved and kids got heaved up onto the backs of taller adults. While the sound from the speech was booming around us, we three stood with our arms around each other and I tried to soak in the moment. Behind Obama’s resolute image on the huge screen we were gathered around, the Chicago skyline twinkled and huge letters spelling out “USA” shone from a skyscraper boasting a lit window design. I could barely make out the water fountain columns in Millenium Park behind it all, glowing deep blue and red for the occasion, and could see streets and lawns well-known to Lake Shore Drivers all around us packed with people. In the darkness, surrounded by people with accents from around the world and proud Chicagoans of every creed and color, I watched the nation’s first black President give a stirring speech. At several points during his acceptance speech, I teared up and felt overcome by what was happening all around us. I thought about how I will be able to tell my 7 month old daughter about this night that will forever shape the world that she grows up in. I thought about so many other children who will grow up now thinking that they, too, have a chance at someday being President. I thought of the people who had gone before Obama, the legacy of the Civil Rights movement, the fights for change by community organizers across the nation, the many communities that defined Chicago and Obama’s work here, the churches and ministries that have been and will continue to help point our country and its people toward racial righteousness and pursuing the justice of God. “Yes We Can” – the crowd kept cheering. Last night, yes – we did!

When we returned home late last night, I re-watched the speech (with good sound and a clear view of the screen this time!) on TV and simply wept. I’m still reflecting on why my tears of joy can’t stop flowing…. but that sense of relief, of gratitude, and of pure joy that bubbled up in me as we walked down Michigan Avenue and the weight of the night settled into my bones has not left me. The reality of all that this election means, and the immensity of the task ahead of us as a country, is still fresh in my mind and in my heart. To be clear – I do not think that Barack Obama is a savior, a saint, or the answer to all the ills of a nation situated in difficult times; but I know that he will soon be our nation’s leader and is a humble, strong reconciler in a country whose many diverse voices now see in him their own potential and future. We still have a long way to go, and the struggle for justice and racial equality and opportunity for all will still call to us and demand our attention and our voices. But there is more space carved out for us, more welcoming voices along that walk, and more people joining in the fight it seems, after last night. I have never been more hopeful, after standing in that warm autumn breeze under dancing city lights with thousands of people moved by a vision for the future, that we as a people will get there.

Sometimes there is good news… International Poverty Updates

PEPFAR just passed the Senate this week, which means that $48 billion in assistance has been allocated over the next five years to the poorest of the poor around the world. This is good news! The bill got stuck in the Senate this summer after having passed the House of Representatives and receiving strong support from President Bush. Through lots of Senators’ tireless efforts (including support from both Obama and McCain), as well a lot of on the ground action, phone calls, letters, etc. from everyday people like you and me, this money has been freed up. It’s exciting that now this money will be able to:

– provide care for 12 million AIDS patients, including five million orphans

– provide increases in funds to fight TB and malaria, two diseases that are at their most devastating in the world’s poorest countries

– provide training for 140,000 new healthcare professionals in places most desperate for doctors and nurses.

If you want to see if your Senator helped pass this bill and spend 2 minutes sending him/her a thank you email, check here. (Thanking them helps show Senators that voters do care about issues like funding for PEPFAR.) More info on PEPFAR and the history of getting it passed can be found on the ONE Campaign site.  

Also, the ONE Campaign now has a parallel effort called “ONE Vote ’08”  (OV08). The goal of OV08 is to keep the international issues related to the Millemium Development Goals (poverty, AIDS/malaria, clean water, education, housing, maternal health, etc.) a priority to both of the presidential candidates and to show candidates that American voters to care about these issues and will vote accordingly. Visit their site to learn how OV08 is equipping people to take on the ground action in order to make fighting extreme poverty and AIDS talked about issue in the upcoming election. The video on the main OV08 page is pretty interesting, fyi.