Profiles of change
SFBG Inauguration Issue: President Obama’s call for citizen action is already resonating
By Amanda Witherell
“Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America,” President Barack Obama told US citizens on his Inauguration Day. “For everywhere we look, there is work to be done.”
He’s not just cheering himself on — he’s asking his constituents to embrace what’s to come and to consider what more we can be as the individual moving parts of this incredibly complex country.
Even as far back as the Democratic National Convention, Obama turned his campaign slogan into a call to action. “All across America something is stirring. What the naysayers don’t understand is this isn’t about me — it’s about you.”
That rang in the ears of people profiled below, who changed their lives in response to his call. That inspired other changes, suggesting that the effort to elect Obama is having a spillover effect on organizing at other levels — which may become a part of how US citizens respond to his actions in office.
Expectations are high for the changes he will order and already there’s indications of what’s to come, such as the closure of the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, the end of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on homosexuality, and a commitment to action on climate change.
Many are eager to see more fundamental change in areas such as war, jobs, housing, energy, and transportation — areas we explore in this issue — as well as greater engagement between the White House and the grassroots groups that helped elect Obama.
In the profiles and stories that follow, the Guardian asks questions about what and who will change and how to move past a pithy slogan to trigger the transformation this country desperately needs.
Maria Gomes was committed to Obama from the beginning. “I signed up right after he announced,” said this Menlo Park resident, who joined Silicon Valley for Obama and volunteered on the campaign.
Her first big assignment was in Iowa, where she spent 10 days campaigning before the caucus along with her husband and two teenage children. For Gomes, Obama’s Iowa win was a particularly powerful and pivotal moment. “I just realized the power of the volunteers and how awesome it was,” she said. “It was clear to me after Iowa that he was going to win, so I just dove in.”
Gomes, a 60-year-old lawyer, took an eight-month unpaid leave from her work as an immigration and dependency attorney for San Mateo County to devote herself fulltime to Obama’s campaign. It was the first time she devoted her life to get a politician elected.
“In fact, I [had] steered away from politics because I don’t really like politics,” she said. “This was different. I really strongly felt the people carried this campaign. I canvassed with CEOs, doctors, young people … nobody took a back seat in this campaign. We did not take it lightly.”
She and her husband served as precinct captains in California. After the primary, she coordinated volunteers and voter registration efforts for the general election. Gomes traveled to seven states in the months leading up to Nov. 4, spending Election Day working on voter protection in Las Vegas.
“I felt that the only way he was going to get elected was if people got in there. It wasn’t just going to happen,” said Gomes, an immigrant from Cabo Verde, off the western coast of Africa.
And it’s not over for Gomes. Her whole family went to Washington DC for the inauguration, where she answered Michelle Obama’s call to volunteer on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Gomes has also signed up to work on Kamala Harris’ run for attorney general and she’s still active with her fellow workers at Silicon Valley for Obama.
“About a week after the election I went to a meeting for our field office. Five hundred people were there. We brainstormed how to stay involved in his campaign,” she said. They ranked issues they’d like to see addressed by Obama and organized themselves into teams to work on messaging them to the new administration. “We received a survey from the national team…. The [Silicon Valley] team took the national survey and made it local, community by community. That’s the kind of movement that’s happening now. I’m sure it’s going on everywhere because the campaign wanted every state and every county involved.” Her husband is now on the tech team and she’s doing fundraising work for the inauguration.
“It’s not over. Nothing has stopped,” she said, adding that she believed this kind of organizing would be very present in the administration. “It’s going to be governed by the people. I plan to be involved for the next four years at whatever level I can. I still write e-mails to whoever I think can change something. I hope it will be transparent enough that we can still communicate to people higher up in the administration — all the way to Barack and Michelle Obama.”
Aaron Knapp graduated from law school in 2002 and spent the subsequent six years working for big corporate law firms. By 2008, he began to feel that all of the major decisions in his life had been made based on money and materialism, an certain emptiness that changed suddenly at summer’s end.
“Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention was a real turning point for me,” he recalled. “The change that I needed in my life was to join in this campaign that transcended the individuals.”
He said he did what he always wanted to do: “I quit a job I don’t enjoy.” Knapp went to work instead on the Obama campaign, spending about four months in Nevada. Putting Obama in office became too important to not give it his all: “I just wanted to make sure on November 4, I could say to myself I did everything I could.”
On election night, with the feeling of victory rushing through him, there was also a kind of malaise, a feeling of “now what?”
“Our roles in the campaign were predetermined — there are a finite amount of things you do in a campaign. Make phone calls, gather data, knock on doors…. After the election, after we won…. What do we do now? Those predetermined roles are no longer set up for us,” he said.
Knapp said it required some soul searching to find the next important thing to do: “The task is to get real specific.”
He’s now writing a book and working to get the Employee Free Choice Act passed by Congress. The act would amend existing labor laws to make it easier for workers to create unions that are recognized by employers. In 2007, it passed in the House and failed in the Senate, but it was part of Obama’s platform during the primary season, and one of the reasons he garnered support from organized labor.
But, said Knapp, “It’s one of those things that’s being put on the back burner as we transition in this administration…. While Obama was championing this cause during the campaign, there’s no sign of it now.”
The waning of enthusiasm for it is indicative of how Obama’s administration may start to handle some of those crucial campaign promises that drew so many people into his fold. That piqued Knapp’s interest and reminded him of the goals of his grandfather, an auto worker for Chevrolet during the 1940s, who passed away during Knapp’s first year of law school: “My grandfather always would plead with me to do whatever I could to get the labor laws back in order. So that’s an issue that’s really important to me.”
Knapp also said that it’s important to keep the grassroots Obama movement alive by continuing to push crucial legislation that was part of his platform for change.
“It goes right to the controversial pieces of law and policy that he’s addressing,” Knapp said. “If he’s able to keep this mobilization together, that will help him significantly in getting policies through.”
Pauli Ojea, who’s about to turn 30 years old, says that she’s spent her entire adult life “voting for the loser” and advocating for change that’s been slow to happen.
A New Jersey native, Ojea came to California to work for the San Francisco Conservation Corps on environmental education programs. That lead to a position with Breast Cancer Action as a community organizer, where she found that hopeful efforts were often frustrated by political pitfalls.
Then, Ojea attended a 2004 event where she heard Van Jones speak about how a new green wave was coming and it needed to lift all boats. When a position opened with Jones’ new organization, Green for All, she applied to be a policy analyst for the Oakland-based green-jobs advocacy group.
In between the two jobs, she spent a week campaigning for Obama with her mother, a Spanish immigrant who groused that if he lost, she’d be spending more time back in Spain.
Ojea now works on federal green-jobs policy and climate change equity, and has already been deeply affected by the Obama election. “For most of my career in advocacy, there’s been this sense that we probably don’t want to work on federal policy because we’re not going to get anywhere,” she explained. “I started at Green For All with Barack Obama elected as president and we’re actually putting a lot of resources into federal policy, and there’s this whole feeling like we’re going to get somewhere. That’s shifted for me. I imagine that for a lot of other environmental and social justice advocates, there seems to be a door opening.”
She’s even more enthused after meeting with members of the Obama transition team who were tasked with a review of the Department of Energy. About 30 to 40 people, representing organizations including the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council as well as renewable energy business leaders and public officials doing energy work in different states, convened in Washington DC to discuss energy policy.
“I’ve been to a lot of public agency meetings and what usually happens is you have maybe an hour and a half of presentation from the agency and maybe a half hour for all the organizations and people trying to get in their piece,” she said. “This was different. It was about a two-hour meeting and the whole time it was dedicated to hearing from the community, from businesses, from people with experience in energy efficiency. The transition team members were fully engaged, actually listening, asking questions, asking for clarifications if they didn’t understand something. They were really humble and they seemed really excited about what kinds of changes were possible. I’d never been part of a process like that.”
Ojea sees more potential than ever for the activist community in the Obama administration. “It could provide more opportunity and open more doors for what your activism is about. There’s such a difference between being used to being on the outside of the fence, behind the barricade, screaming because it’s the only way to be heard. Is that going to change? Are we going to be inside the fence?”
She recalled Obama’s campaign observation that “change doesn’t come from Washington, change comes to Washington.” She’s hoping the Obama team’s outreach will continue.
“We’re at a really strange and critical time,” Ojea said. “As Van says, in America, in terms of the economy, the floor has dropped out from under us. But with the election of Obama, the ceiling has come off. There’s a lot of opportunity, and things could also go downhill. What are we going to do?”