My dearest TCKs across the globe,
For those of you who weren’t able to be in the United States during this historic election, I would like to share with you what I have experienced in the last four days. I moved to the US for college, although I went to an American school abroad. But last night, for the first time, I witnessed the power of the democratic process.
On Nov. 1 I headed up to the battleground state of New Hampshire to help out with the campaign. As a non-citizen who couldn’t vote, I figured this was the next best thing. When I showed up, it was chaos at the Obama office in Raymond, NH. The town is historically a Republican stronghold, but this Democratic outfit was packed. I was surrounded by people of all types — hardened union workers, sweet stay at home moms, sophisticated attorneys and enthusiastic college students. They were all heading out to canvass, bringing with them lists of registered voters, stickers, pamphlets and their reasons for supporting Barack Obama.
As someone who had never seen an election in the rural United States, I had no concept of what canvassing was. I learned the ropes from my first canvass partner, Janice, a mother of two and an ardent volunteer. She’d been spreading the message of change since Labor Day.
“I’ve never done this for an election before,” she said while driving us out to our ‘canvassing turf.’ “…But I realized that I couldn’t handle eight more years of this.”
So door-to-door we went with our Obama message, from wealthy neighborhoods to run-down shacks, ringing doorbells that didn’t work and very nearly getting eaten alive by two ferocious dogs.
Almost no one was home. Those who were home didn’t want to talk to us. It was freezing cold out. Old women in their pajamas yelled about their republicanism from behind partly open doors. There was only one guy who was still undecided. He stopped raking leaves in his yard to talk to us, and I think we might have changed his mind.
All in all we went to 60 homes, and talked to maybe 20 people. It felt insignificant and unhelpful.
The day before the election, I went out hanging “VOTE!” door signs with two guys from the New England Carpenters Union, Brian and Vinny. We ran from door to door until 10pm in the pitch black, rural night, hanging about 120 door signs. Brian and Vin were exhausted, but they kept going.
On Election Day, we stationed ourselves outside a poll waving Obama signs. I stood by the side of the road with a huge smile on my face, chatting cheerily with the other women who ignored their aching feet to stand proud. Someone drove by and flicked their middle finger at me. My smile fell. In about 10 minutes, someone else did again. I took it personally.
Then in the distance, from the baseball field behind us, I heard a kid yell, “OBAMA!!!!” I turned around, waved to them, and got them to come join us. These two kids, Cody and Kody, readily picked up signs and cheered at passing cars, debating intelligently about battleground states and vice-presidential picks. They were still in middle school. I was so impressed.
An hour before the 2-year long campaign came to an end, my friend Phil and I went from house to house in the dark making sure that people had voted. At the fifth house, the door creaked open to a scowling face. The unpleasant woman berated us for three minutes for bothering her, for asking her if she had voted, for standing on her porch in the dark. Phil and I had been awake since 5am, working at the polls. We were exhausted. We were shaken by the utter nastiness. We walked back to the car in silence, hanging our heads.
“This is a thankless job,” he said, sighing.
An hour and a few more houses later, the polls had closed and we returned to the Raymond office. All the canvassers were back and it was chaos again. We cheered and danced, drank and hugged. Mike, a gentleman who had volunteered on the campaign, a man who ran away from home at 12 and was “set straight” by a blind woman with a big heart, was clearly moved.
“This is the first campaign I’ve ever worked on,” he said, almost surprised himself. “This has been so great.” The smile never left his face all night.
As the numbers finally started rolling in, we made our way to the Manchester Democratic rally. One by one the states started turning blue. And we won New Hampshire.
That’s when, I think, I finally got it. Because up until then, I felt that everything we had done was completely insignificant. But that was how the election was won.
Because of the efforts of Janice, Brian and Vin, Mike, Phil and I, a few hundred doors got knocked on in New Hampshire. That’s not much, but multiply that by the thousands of volunteers that showed up across the state. Then by the millions across the country.
Here’s what I learned.
Most doors were closed; but every once in a while we got one with an open mind. And as we worked our magic across the country, neighbor-to-neighbor, the possibility of change coming to America grew, one person, one door knock at a time. It is an incredible process, one that I have never seen, never participated in in any other country that I have ever lived in. It is democratic. It is grassroots. It was a powerful, life-changing realization. When I saw the words “Barack Obama Elected President” flash across the screen, I started laughing and crying… all at the same time.
“The groundwork of this campaign is unbelievable,” Steve, a union man, had told me earlier that day. “Last night my son in Cleveland, Ohio called me. He said, ‘What’s up, dad?’ I said, I’m out hanging Obama door signs. He said, ‘Really? Are they about 15 inches long, blue, with a picture of Obama’s hand raised? Because I just got one when I got home tonight.'”
“It was unbelievable!” he continued. “While I was here doing it in New Hampshire, someone else at the same time was doing the same thing in Ohio. All across the nation.”
Barack Obama’s presidency was won by that one volunteer who knocked on a door, made a call or hung that sign. That volunteer, of many different ages, races and even citizenships, across the country.
We celebrated that night at the Manchester rally, surrounded by New Hampshire organizers whose year of hard work had collapsed into one emotional night. Two of my friends and recent UChicago grads, Hollie Gilman and Scott Duncombe, had spent all their energy on the campaign. They are organizers and political actors who inspire me to no end, along with their highly capable and committed volunteers Sam Gordon, Will Selinger and Phil Caruso, and technology guru John Lee, all from UChicago. Together, this team of 22 and 23-year-olds, with the army of volunteers they recruited, were in charge of approximately 13,000 votes. Most hadn’t been out of college for more than 6 months, and already they were changing the world.
This campaign has mobilized an entire generation of youth that feel empowered to change the world. On Nov. 4 I learned about the enormous power of the single person and the beauty of democracy. I suspect the rest of the world did too.
Note: The US just elected its first TCK president.