Yes we can. Yes we did. Yes we can.
Coming of age with President Obama: A personal farewell
I was a senior in high school when I first heard Barack Obama speak. It was the night of the New Hampshire primary. I knew nothing about politics beyond watching my dad cynically, angrily watch Meet the Press on Sunday mornings. I remember thinking, I’m going to college soon, which means I’m pretty much an adult, which means this is something I’m supposed to care about.
As I scrolled through Google news reports, the picture of a young, light-skinneded messiah with a funny name suddenly appeared. I clicked on CNN, and here was Barack Obama — defiant and joyous in defeat — talking about immigrants and slaves. He placed them alongside the founding fathers and other revolutionaries, suffragettes and visionaries, labor organizers and civil rights icons.
It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes we can.
It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights: Yes we can.
It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness: Yes we can.
It was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballot, a president who chose the moon as our new frontier, and a king who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land: Yes we can to justice and equality. Yes we can to opportunity and prosperity. Yes we can heal this nation. Yes we can repair this world.
Yes we can.
I’d later learn that in the New Hampshire Presidential primary, placing second amongst a crowded field by less than 3% to the prohibitive favorite by a relative unknown was indeed cause for celebration. I’d learn that his very real obscurity made his rise, as his story, unlikely. I didn’t need an education in politics, however, to know that that he did it with Hussein as his middle name was itself a victory.
I was awestruck. For the first time in my short waking life, here was a politician who looked and sounded like myself. He represented not just who I was, but someone I could aspire to be. He knew my experience, was familiar with my family’s and neighbors’ stories, and even dared to embed those narratives within that quintessential American story. And he was running for President of the United States.
On election night that year, I would weep openly in my freshman dormitory, the ultrasound printout of my yet-to-be born eldest pinned above my bed. Yes we can.
Summer of 2012. Mere months after graduating college. My mother and I talking about how important this election is, lamenting that we can’t vote despite having lived and loved as Americans for nearly 20 years. An immigrant with a PhD turned public school teacher, my mother’s path to citizenship rests on immigration reform. I just can’t believe we don’t have a say in all this. We do though. My parents’ courage brought me here to make a better life for myself. And in face of every obstacle, every choir of cynicism, every piece of evidence that points to the contrary, I knew exactly what to do when blessed with inspiration.
I stumble into the local campaign office. Within a week of clerical and judgement errors, I go from volunteer to Field Organizer.
I remember everything moving quickly. I remember not hitting some performance metric that felt completely arbitrary. I remember being embarrassed. I remember being looked at as an authority but not knowing at all what I was doing. I remember early mornings, late nights, and shitty food. I remember making lifelong friends.
This, nearly autonomous field offices in far-flung small towns, is what campaign hacks proverbially call the trenches.
Thankfully, I had been running a youth program part-time, working with nearly every high school in the area. I called on a network of even-younger idealists dying to make change, eager for an internship and letter of recommendation.
On election day, a retired Spanish teacher from my old high school brought in snacks. For the big day. Interns huddled around the last couple thousand voter IDs and made the last phone calls of the campaign. County party heads and volunteers came out of the woodwork. We listened to the returns on the radio, frantically refreshing electoral maps on our laptops.
I know that political campaigns can sometimes seem small, even silly. And that provides plenty of fodder for the cynics who tell us that politics is nothing more than a contest of egos or the domain of special interests. But if you ever get the chance to talk to folks who turned out at our rallies and crowded along a rope line in a high school gym or — or saw folks working late at a campaign office in some tiny county far away from home, you’ll discover something else.
You’ll hear the determination in the voice of a young field organizer who’s working his way through college and wants to make sure every child has that same opportunity. You’ll hear the pride in the voice of a volunteer who’s going door to door because her brother was finally hired when the local auto plant added another shift. You’ll hear the deep patriotism in the voice of a military spouse who’s working the phones late at night to make sure that no one who fights for this country ever has to fight for a job or a roof over their head when they come home.
That’s why we do this. That’s what politics can be. That’s why elections matter. It’s not small, it’s big. It’s important. Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated… These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty, and we can never forget that as we speak, people in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter the chance to cast their ballots like we did today.
The rural county I grew up and organized in is reliably Republican. But today, there are more Hispanic people than any other demographic thanks to decades of migrant farmworkers settling into the Valley.
Still, we got beat pretty bad. But that wasn’t the point.
Like so many of my neighbors, I couldn’t vote. We belong to the class of immigrants who pay our taxes, send our kids to public schools, work hard and live American lives, but come election day, we find ourselves on the outside looking in — our faces pressed against the glass. At that moment, hope is all we have. Despite all this, I had found a way into the political process. I had directly convinced people to pick candidates and issues that reflected their best interest. And through the ragtag work of a collective minority, we won key precincts. We registered voters. We saw firsthand, every day what happens when you empower individuals to get engaged and exercise some level of self-determination they might have never known they had had before. Yes we can.
Anyone at all who cares about community, wants a job in politics, or thinks that people are, at their base, cold and apathetic should work as an organizer. Among a number of things, Barack Obama taught me that.
Nearly nine years to the day since I heard Barack Obama speak for the first time, I’m explaining to my 7-year old daughter the significance of his farewell address — what it means to me and our people, how it will shape the continuing conversation she will inherit that is America. I’m trying to explain how many ways Yes we can resonates and where it comes from. That within that small phrase is a basic promise to do good and fix what’s wrong with the world. I’m doing a bad job of it.
I pull out my phone to show her his New Hampshire primary speech. Obsessed with all things pop culture, she immediately goes to the Wycleaf Jean version. Of course, she loves it. It won an Emmy. Yes we can.
I imagine her sitting in her freshman dormitory weeping at the enormity of the world she’s about to face. I imagine her explaining to her daughter what change means and why hope matters. I imagine her, blessed with inspiration as she is, telling a stadium full of her people, her community that the promise of her grandparents of a better way is theirs also.
As I kiss each of my kids good night. Half-jokingly, Yes we can. They say it back the way they do, Yes we can.
So here I am now crying into my keyboard trying to make sense of the last nine years marked by personal, if somewhat uneven, progress. Faced with the fear of the upcoming administration and how its policies impact me and my family, I’m mentally preparing. I’m trying to be cynical. I’m trying to remove my own story, my children’s stories from all of ours. I’m trying to put daylight between us. But because exactly in the same way there has never been anything false about hope, symbolism still refuses to die and whole worlds continue to move by it.
Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power. We, the people, give it meaning — with our participation, and with the choices that we make and the alliances that we forge.
Barack Obama’s presidency will be remembered by his long list of accomplishments. His detractors — on the left and the right — will have plenty to say about his legacy too. What’s fair is fair, I suppose.
For myself though, there will always be the 12-year old me looking out into the world, searching for someone who looks close enough to looking like me to reframe my sense of what I could be. There’s the high school senior with one foot out the door and the college freshman looking back at what he left behind, caught between more change than you could fit a whole world into. The wide-eyed college graduate who couldn’t vote but still wanted to exercise political will. And now, this mess of a man hoping against hope that he’s not screwing it all up.