This I Believe

Gayla - Richmond, Virginia
Entered on February 9, 2008
Age Group: 30 - 50
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Hope is such an abstract word. But I got a chance today to see how that idea was playing out in the real world.

I had volunteered to go door to door in Richmond a few days before the Virginia primary. I hooked up with another woman, also in her 40s, and we drove to our designated neighborhood, Highland Park. It was new to us both, and we took in the boarded up houses and “No trespassing signs” as we parked the car. Though it was a warm sunny day for February, the streets felt lonely.

As someone who had canvassed in several campaigns before, I tried to give my new partner “Sarah” a bit of advice about knocking on doors. “About a quarter of these African-American men won’t be able to vote,” I explained, “because they’re former felons.”

One of the first men I approached confirmed my words. “I can’t vote,” he said straight up, almost defiantly. “Well,” I replied, “you could still volunteer and get others to vote.” At this he stood taller. “Volunteer? How?” I explained about needing more people to walk door-to-door, to make calls, to drive people to the polls. “If you convinced several people to vote,” I argued, “It would be like you had voted several times.”

He got it immediately. He asked for a campaign sticker for his jacket and directions to campaign headquarters. He stepped out of the cell he was in—the cell that defined what he couldn’t do. In front of my eyes, I saw him begin to see what he could do instead. It was like magic.

Sarah and I spoke to several more men that day who responded the same way. They saw themselves as shut out of the political world by a system of discrimination—a system more likely to arrest black men, a system more likely to imprison them for longer stays, and a system that made it harder for them to get jobs, to vote, to become part of society when they got out. Now they were hearing of a small way back in, a way to make their voices heard. And some of them wanted to take that chance.

We also talked to the children. The first set of three kids was on their bicycles, a girl and two boys between six and eight years. “Do you know what’s happening on Tuesday?” I asked. “There’s going to be a big election to get our next president in the White House. Have you heard about Barack Obama?” They were pretty excited to be talking about this. “Yeah, we saw him on TV.”

“Can you make sure that your family gets to the polls? It’s very important that they vote. And I think Obama will be the best choice for our country to help fix all the problems we’re having.” I held up a piece of campaign literature with Obama’s face on the front. They leaned forward, looking at his smile. Enthusiasm glowed on their faces.

I tried to imagine what it must feel like for them, as black children in a neighborhood struggling to make it. Here was a picture of a handsome black man, someone they’d seen on television in front of thousands of cheering throngs. This wasn’t like the faces they’d seen in school during Black History Month. As far as they were concerned, Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass were probably of the same dead generation, far in the past and just as unreal.

But now there was a living person they could see on their TV, and I was asking them to talk to their parents about voting for him.

I gave each of them a sticker to wear, and they sped off home on their bikes with their campaign literature. I watched them go, wondering what path each would take. And I thought about the power of images, and of the imagination, of hope, and of possibility. And this seemed like a campaign about a lot more than “just” choosing a president.