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The Age of Change

Posted on 14 November 2008

By Marissa Maier      

   

In the days leading up to the election, the noise level at the Barack Obama office in downtown Pittsburgh was deafening. Dozens of people squeezed into the one-room space. A team of volunteers sat around three plastic tables calling local voters. “Hello, how are you doing today? I am a volunteer with the Obama Campaign for Change. Do you know who you will be voting for on November 4th?” each caller asked the person on the other end of the line. The chorus of volunteers reciting this script started to sound like a loud and badly-timed musical round. At a row of computers along the wall, an orchestra of electronic beeps emanated from a crew of five, who were scanning voter registration bar codes into an online database. In one corner of the room, an office manager screamed out poll updates to other senior employees as he stared at the three computers resting on his desk.

“Welcome to the Obama Volunteer Army,” said Alex, an 18-year-old campaign organizer, who showed me the office. I had arrived in Pittsburgh that morning. It was a Tuesday and one week remained before the presidential election. I was planning on volunteering for a full month, but due to a new job offer, the amount of time I could volunteer had shriveled down to just four days.

Alex grew up in Southampton, but for the past few months he lived in Pittsburgh to work for the campaign. Before Alex moved to Pennsylvania, he held phone-banking sessions at his home in Southampton during the summer. Witnessing the excitement with which Alex greeted every volunteer who came into the office, it was clear that he was devoted to the campaign.

I didn’t tell Alex this, but I came to Pittsburgh as a jaded supporter of Obama. I wholeheartedly believed he was the best candidate. During Ted Kennedy’s endorsement speech, I cried when Kennedy said “With Barack Obama, we will close the book on the old politics of race against race, gender against gender, ethnic group against ethnic group, and straight against gay.” I voted for Obama in the primaries and avidly followed his success in the news.

A nagging voice inside of my head, however, argued that the United States still wasn’t ready to disentangle itself from racism. This point of view seemed to be aligned with the Republican vision, and I recalled the landscape of the many states shaded in red from the last two elections. Sag Harbor is a liberal town, at least in my mind, located in the liberal state of New York. Even in Sag Harbor, though, I see daily reminders of how racial and class exclusion coincide decades after the civil rights movement. How could Obama transcend the racism which remains in even the most liberal parts of the country?

By my first afternoon in Pittsburgh, this opinion was beginning to change. In the span of two-and-a-half hours, I called nearly 150 people. A majority of the registered voters of them supported Barack Obama. Alex then sent me out to do some door-to-door canvassing. Clutching my folder of Obama literature, I knocked on nearly fifty doors. The number of Obama leaning citizens I met that day was overwhelming. My qualms over America’s readiness to elect a bi-racial president were put on the back burner. Instead I concentrated my energy in enlisting others to join the volunteer army.

It was late in the afternoon on my third day in Pittsburgh. I stood outside the library of Carnegie Mellon University shouting, “Do you know where your closest polling location is?” A premature snowfall dampened my hair and coat. An hour passed. I silently offered campaign stickers to passersby without reciting my political litany. Finally, I decided to return to the Obama booth inside, near the student lounge. “How did it go?” asked Tommy, who was in charge of organizing volunteers from the CMU campus. “Four more,” I replied rubbing my red fingers together. I had signed up four volunteers in the past hour. My total for the day was 10 and I was elated by this number.

Tommy and two British guys, James and Tom, sat at the booth. James and Tom, two recent college grads, flew into the United States almost four weeks ago to work on the campaign. An older man came up to the booth and asked for a sticker. James said “certainly.” “Oh you’re British,” the man said. “And you came all this way to work for Obama?”

“Of course I did,” James jokingly replied. “You guys did a good job at messing things up and I came here to make sure you got it right this time or [he pointed to himself] we’re America back.”

Tommy, Tom and James looked exhausted. Dark circles hung around their eyes. Lately, they left the office at three, sometimes four, in the morning, and returned at 8:30 a.m. Every fifteen minutes Tommy’s phone rings. Most of the time, it is someone from the office. Tommy is a sophomore at a college in Ohio, but took the semester off in order to work on the Obama campaign.

As the hum of student activity died down, the guys discussed the logistics of their election night party: rides, food and drinks. “But what if he doesn’t win,” I found myself asking. Tommy didn’t look at me, and just shook his head. “Not going to happen,” he said over and over again. “It can’t happen. It simply can’t.”

I know how Obama overcame the issue of racism in this election. It was because of the support of people like Tommy. He not only believed in the possibility of a new America, he expected it. There was a notable solidarity amongst people like Alex, James and Tom. They abandoned the sluggish apathy that marked the Bush administration, and devoted themselves to a candidate who appealed to voters of all classes, genders and races. By my last day in Pittsburgh, I was converted and I felt that the dawning of a new era for this country was just around the corner.

On election night, I was in New York City. A large gathering had erupted in the streets of the East Village. People cheered, hugged, kissed, cried and chanted “U.S.A, U.S.A,” while waving American flags in the air. Hearing those three letters shouted in the streets, it was the first time I felt pride for this country instead of a shudder of guilt. It is the dawning of a new America and everyone feels it.

 

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