Thursday, January 8, 2009

Who's going to save who?

In this week's New Yorker Magazine, there is an article called "Greening the Ghetto" (see It's about Van Jones, founder and president of a group called "Green for All".

Green, a forty year old African-American ("a youthful version of Barack Obama) is quoted in the article, while talking to a group of high school dropouts in New Bedford, MA, a depressed old whaling town as saying:
"I love Barack Obama. I'd pay money just to shine his shoes. But I'll tell you this. Do you hear me? One man is not going to save us. I don't care who that man is. He's not going to save us. And, in fact, if you want to be real about this - can y'all take it? I'm going to be real with y'all. Not only is Barack Obama not going to save you - you are going to have to save Barack Obama." He goes on to tell this gathering that they can be leaders in the green movement and the next wave of entrepeneurs, and at the same time make Obama a success.

For me, this is a powerful message that we can all take note of. Among Quakers and other like-minded people, I have had a sense that Obama is being looked at as a savior (this the presence of Obama signs at Friends gatherings?). Even at a recent pot-luck, the discussion was about what Obama needs to do to be inclusive of the poor outside the US in order to shift the flow of violence in the world. I think the reality is, as Jones says, we've got this wrong, and if we simply sit and observe how well Obama does, we are going to be horribly disappointed (many already are by some of his appointments).

The fact is, to date, Obama has actually been very true to his campaign pledges: he said he would bring in diverse people and he never said he was for gay marriage, so the Warren announcement is not necessarily flip-flopping. What Obama also said throughout the campaign is that the work ahead is going to require all of our best efforts, and he cannot do it alone.

I would like to think that the fundamental change that can happen - but it has to happen quickly - is that, rather than consider what opportunities does Obama have to change the world, let us consider what opportunities his election has created for all of us to change the world. We now have someone who will support changes in fuel and consumption patterns, and who will encourage greater inclusivity in our communities and in the world. So far, I don't think that "we" as a collective nation have responded well. Many have slammed Obama for his inclusiveness. More importantly, there has been a lot of chatter on the internet about telling Obama what he needs to do. Really, it's about, ok, now that we have elected him, what do we need to do to save him? If he asks us to be patient; if he asks us to make changes in our lives; if he asks us to reach out to others in our community to do it; if he asks us to stop being so angry and fearful, but instead loving; if he asks us to drive less and ride bikes or walk more, will we do all these things? If he asks all of us to get tested for HIV, will we line up (just think, if the whole nation did this in a year, we could dramatically stop the spread of HIV).

I think Jones has got it right: We need to save Obama. For each one of us, that means it's time to get busy not focusing so much on what others need to do, but on what we - or more importantly, I - need to do fundamentally different.

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