Thursday, November 13, 2008

Re-learning Optimism

This is not a political blog. There are plenty of those out there already.

That said, presidential elections have far-reaching consequences, including for those of us with an interest in education, children, and peacemaking. And with the election now a week in the past, there is just enough space that our first impressions have had some time to settle. What I've been most struck by is the near universal pride in the election of an African-American to the presidency. It is an accomplishment that has blunted, at least temporarily, the rancor that has characterized the political arena for decades. This is perhaps most evident in the acclaim offered by those on the 'losing' side last week:
  • Condoleezza Rice, the first African-American Secretary of State, her eyes glistening spoke about it in an interview on NBC the day after the election: "As an African-American, I'm especially proud, because this is a country that's been through a long journey, in terms of overcoming wounds ... That work is not done, but yesterday was obviously an extraordinary step forward."
  • Former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, on his blog, wrote, "As disappointed as I am that we have lost the election, I can't help but feel that many courageous leaders of the civil rights movement look down from heaven tonight with a smile that the day has come when a man is elected without regard to his color. I salute President-elect Obama for his discipline and tenacity that has given our country the opportunity to witness this significant event."
  • Less inclined to get caught up in the historical nature of the election but uncommonly admiring in his assessment, Fred Barnes, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, said of President-elect Obama, "[H]e's a colossus astride the continent, the most commanding political presence since Ronald Reagan arrived in Washington."
  • Even John McCain, in his concession speech, recognized the history inherent in the moment: "[Although] we have come a long way from the old injustices that once stained our nation's reputation and denied some Americans the full blessings of American citizenship, the memory of them still had the power to wound. ...America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States."
We should frame this moment.

I doubt there is anyone who believes that this election marks the end of partisanship, but for those of us who have a stake in helping children and young people not only manage conflict but make positive changes to their communities this election marks a watershed moment. Young people became involved in community change on an unprecedented scale, changing the way that some adults think about young people. Consider this anecdote from a colleague's friend in Chicago:

My sister went to vote at 6:30 this morning. In the past, voting has been a very quiet occasion in the hood. This morning there was a line of folks. In the line were two black young men who she recognized as ne'er-do-wells from the neighborhood. They dutifully filled out their ballots and as it was being scanned by an elderly poll worker, she said to the young men "I am so proud of you." He responded, "Thank you, ma'am. I am proud of me too."

It makes me wonder what it is about this election - or this candidate - that made young people get involved. The cynical side of me suspects that it is largely a credit to just how bad things had become. (And I suppose there is some truth in that). The more hopeful side of me - a side which has really bloomed in the days since last Tuesday - is more liable to credit all kinds of things that are hard to touch and the mention of which call to mind the rhetoric of political campaigns: an historical moment, an ethos of optimism, faith in ourselves and each other. Could it be that they have become more than just buzzwords?

Beyond the buzz, though, I have learned from seven years of working to effect social change in schools that there is a lot to be said for having faith in young people. Community service is another one of those buzzwords, but to do it well requires sharing power with young people in a real way. It is something that carries inherent risks - that they will "fail" or "abuse" their power because they haven't yet developed the skills they need - but the benefits far outweigh the risks. At the conclusion of one Peacemaker Project a few years ago, a young student noted that, "Adults didn't think we could really do this kind of project, but we did." It sounds strikingly similar to the forecasts of political prognosticators in early 2007.

This is not to say that some projects don't fail - nor is it to suggest that President-elect Obama won't occasionally fail. He most certainly will, as we all do, but during his campaign he was able to convey a message to young people (and those of us who were young people some time ago) that faith in him would not be wasted. In order to ensure that it's not, it will require us to have faith in each other and our ability to stay engaged.

There are a lot of people counting on us.

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