Drove through Johnson City west out of Kansas and into Colorado. Up to Animas and over to Pueblo. Beautiful. Big open skies, no traffic, no fog. I listened to the radio until the station would start to fade, try to find another one, or just turn it off and sing to myself, think, or zone out. Then Rich Girl by Hall and Oates would pop in my head – a consequence of the jukebox at the Bar and Grill in Bucklin – and I’d turn the radio on again to see if I could find another song to take its place.
Somewhere around Rocky Ford I called my friend Christina back. She’s a nurse, lives in Nacogdoches, Texas and had recently driven across the state to El Paso to help care for asylum seekers coming here from Central America.
She told me that meeting and helping these families also helped her change the dynamic of the conversation when she returned to East Texas. Instead of arguing about what FOX or MSNBC said about what was happening on the border, she could share what she saw and heard in person. Appeal to their empathy and compassion, lessen their fear and anxiety.
I pulled into Pueblo ahead of schedule. I was going to meet some people at the community college at 5:30 and it was only 5:00. I stopped in at a Starbucks near the college to charge my phone which was out of juice. Must be a fuse blown in the truck, the cigarette lighter would no longer charge the phone through the adapter.
I plugged my phone in and went up to the counter to order a coffee from Robbie. He insisted on paying and told me that he’d followed the campaign from Colorado and was happy that I’d come into his Starbucks.
I got to Pueblo Community College and was met at the library by President Patty Erjavec and Dr. Jeff Anderson who is Dean of Arts and Sciences. Library staff and student leaders were there too. I followed them upstairs where there were a few dozen students from a history class and an ethics class.
What followed was one of these transcendent moments in public life… something so raw and honest that you want to hold on to it, remember every word… a flow between people. But going through my notes right now, I know that my recounting of the words and themes won’t do it justice.
Raw. People adding to what the previous speaker had said, or challenging what someone else shared, respectfully but directly. Moved to speak up, to share, to add. At first politely raising hands and asking questions. And then, just speaking, having a conversation and not asking polite questions but sharing experience, suggesting solutions.
This kind of conversation wasn’t really possible by the end of the Senate campaign this past fall. The schedule had become too intense, too much in a day to spend enough time to hear someone’s story all the way through. Too may stops, so many people. I was really glad that we could take the time and hear each other out in Pueblo.
It was cathartic, even somewhat emotional for many of us, for me.
Many of the students I met were professionals – already working as teachers, police officers, EMTs. Their observations and ideas came from experience.
A pre-K teacher told me that she is barely making it on a salary that doesn’t allow her to pay all her bills. Nor does anyone account for the fact that she’ll buy shoes, socks, clothes for the kids in her classroom out of her own pocket.
A woman in the back raised her hand to tell us about her family. Her husband is an immigrant, in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. She told us that they live in deep anxiety and fear of somehow messing up, of getting some detail in the application wrong, of losing the ability to petition for citizenship or of being able to stay in the country. “We’ve done everything the right way, but right now it feels as though there is a hostility towards immigrants and it has us worried.”
A veteran spoke about enlisting on September 18, 2001. After years of fighting for this country, of being blown up for this country, he’d come back to an America that had no real appreciation of his sacrifice. A country that was divided, bickering, paralyzed by fighting one another. Why can’t we choose to be good to each other? he asked.
A young woman wanted to make sure I knew how lucky I was to be at PCC – she told me how it had changed her life, gave her confidence and a path forward. She now tutors at PCC and sees how others are having the same positive experience. She wants this country to make a real commitment to education – universal pre K and ensuring that everyone can afford college. She wants me to do whatever I can to push that. “You have a platform, and you have a responsibility to use it.”
A man who had worked as an EMT saving other people’s lives described being nearly unable to afford insulin to treat his diabetes. From his own experiences and from working within healthcare he knows how badly our system is broken, how many people are out of luck.
A transgender student talked about the difficulty he faces as he makes his way through school and life, in part because progress has bred complacency. Now that same sex marriage is legal, many assume the struggle for members of LGBTQ community is over. He made it clear to all of us that it is not and that if everyone’s going to have the chance to live to their full potential, if we’re going to really live up to our promise as a country to treat everyone equally, then there’s a lot more work to do.
The student body president sitting up front with her son talked about leading with love and compassion instead of hatred and intolerance. I don’t know how to write this in a way that does justice to what she said and how she said it. It wasn’t hokey or naive. It was powerful and strong.
That began a conversation about how to ensure that all that we were talking about in this library could become part of how we fix the country, bring people together, end so much of the division that keeps us from joining forces to get stuff done. I don’t know, I said, reiterating something I’d said with the group in Goodwell the other night – run for office, get together, hold town hall meetings, volunteer, organize around what you care about most, be open to one another, see yourself and your hopes in the people around you and beyond you. Something like that. I shared the anecdote of walking into the bar in Ulysses, Kansas and being so happily surprised by the good people I’d met and the conversations we’d had. Sometimes we assume too much about people that we don’t know well enough. Only way past that is to get together and listen to one another.
After the public conversation I stayed around for an hour to just talk individually with anyone who wanted to. A guy who works at the Department of Homeland Security told me what it was like to work through the shutdown. He’s OK for now. How much longer that’ll be the case, he doesn’t know.
A police officer told me he was pursuing a business degree. He wants to start a non profit for addiction recovery. He lost his wife to a drug overdose recently, and is raising their 6 and 8 year old boys on his own. He wants to be there for other families that are going through something similar.
A man who’d immigrated here with his wife from Canada talked about how much better their healthcare was in the U.S. She had serious health issues, and they found a lack of urgency in treating her conditions in Canada and a much better experience here. How do we learn from what works and doesn’t work here and in other countries to devise the best system of ensuring everyone is guaranteed high quality healthcare?
As the library emptied out I stood talking to two veterans who were part of the student veteran association. They said, well you talked about organizing and getting together, why don’t you come with some of us to an Irish place downtown for dinner?
Over fish and chips, the veterans, Jeremy and Andrew; the student body president, Tracey and her young son Kaston; Jeff (the dean who’d introduced me at the event) and a few others expanded on some of the issues that had come up at the library.
Jeff and I talked about immigration, about his travels in the U.S. and then about Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. He had just read it again after finding it for a dollar at a used book shop. I told him I read it as a kid and really liked it, and wondered if it held up. Surprisingly well he said. He then moved down to the other side of the table, I think to make sure that the students could more freely engage in the conversation.
Tracey shared what it was like to grow up in a family of immigrants from Nigeria in Jacksonville, Texas. About all of the opportunity her family found here, and how hard they worked to make the most of it. She described the devastation she felt when her mom died when she was 17 and her dad died when she was 19. Broke, unable to pay the water bill, much less figure out how to afford college. But ultimately she was able to make her way to Pueblo, to find PCC, to enroll and now to be student body president, using her gifts as a leader to help others around her. She’ll transfer to Colorado State next year, pursue her masters. Sky’s the limit. She knows it and has a quiet confidence and determination that I was drawn to. I thought I sure hope she runs for office, the country needs her.
Jeremy, who leads the student veterans organization, talked about growing up in North Carolina and what it was like to enlist in the aftermath of 9/11. He told me about the injuries and trauma he’d sustained in service to this country, and how bizarrely difficult it was to get help and support from the VA when he got back. He seemed to have really found his rhythm in civilian life as a leader at PCC. It was yet another testimonial to the transformative opportunity PCC has provided to its students. It was evident in the conversation at the library, and I was seeing it in Jeremy and the others around the table. Naturally gregarious, incredibly kind, enthusiastic in sharing his story and solutions to some of the national problems that concerned him. Like Tracey, Jeremy came across as a leader, someone you want with you when the going gets tough.
Andrew was kind, thoughtful and very generous in sharing his path to Pueblo. He was raised in Colorado on the western slope, in a conservative community. He joined the military over some objection from his family. But shared with me that a few factors made the decision for him. He didn’t know how else he’d be able to afford college; he was moved by the idea that we should ask not what our country can do for us but what we can do for our country; and he wanted to prove to himself that he could do it. He talked about the extraordinary level of community he found in the military. His whole platoon having dinner together around a giant table, dispensing with formality and rank and just connecting. Like family. The common bonds and experiences that brought them closer and which still exist today, only now they are physically separated, each moving on in life somewhere else, doing something else. He told me about someone with whom he served who recently took his life. If he’d known his friend was in trouble he would have dropped everything that minute and raced halfway across the country to be with him and help. He hasn’t found those kinds of relationships, that level of camaraderie and commitment, in civilian life.
We talked about whether there is some way that DOD and the VA can facilitate veterans from the same unit being able to more closely stay in touch. When possible to volunteer together, eat together – mutually support their fellow veterans in civilian life. It’s clear that these two massive bureaucracies can do a much better job in the transition from military to civilian life. And just as clear that I was sitting with two veterans who could lead in figuring that out.
Like Jeremy, I was impressed that Andrew always seemed to have an answer or solution to any problem or concern that he’d raise.
It was getting late and I knew that I had to be up early the next day. I got up to pay the check only to discover that Jeff had bought everyone’s dinner and drinks and left before we had a chance to thank him.
We said our goodbyes, everyone wanting to make sure that I had a place to stay and offering to help with anything I needed in Pueblo.
I drove to the hotel just really feeling grateful, a big smile on my face. The country will be OK, there are so many good people like Tracey and Jeremy and Andrew and Jeff. So many who want to be part of the solution, who have the courage to engage and push themselves and those around them to do better. Who are troubled by what’s happening in the country right now, but come to the table with ideas, with open hearts and minds, with a kindness and generosity that is powerful.