This summer, I walked in the Paonia Cherry Days parade on the Fourth of July— past many of my former classmates, teachers and community—carrying a hand-painted “Obama’08” sign. The experience filled me with excitement and determination, not to mention a keen sense of my own vulnerability in this small, mostly Republican community.
I spent most of my childhood in the North Fork Valley of western Colorado. In a sixth-grade discussion about world religions, when the teacher asked who in the class was Christian, all the students but me raised their hands. It was the first time I felt what it was like to be different.
When I left at 15 to be an exchange student and subsequently attend an international school, I entered an environment where diversity was the norm: All viewpoints were encouraged, considered and challenged. It was there that I became infected with Obamamania. In February, I had the opportunity of seeing the candidate speak, which solidifed not only my hope but my faith in him.
I will vote for Barack Obama because I agree with most of his platform and policy proposals. But I avidly support him because of his ability to overcome the current standard of partisan politics, a financial framework that enables corporate control, and the nation’s feeling of apathetic hopelessness. His campaign demonstrates the potency of grassroots empowerment. I have seen it ignite my generation, too many of whom were declining into political cynicism and complacency.
Four years ago, during the race between President Bush and John Kerry, I was struck by the strength of that complacency. I was living in the North Fork Valley, acutely aware that the disinterest of my peers was reflected in the polls: only a 47 percent voter turnout of people aged 18-25. There was a pervasive climate of citizen disempowerment that encouraged a view of politics as something too distant from ordinary peoples’ lives to really matter.
While it is naïve to say that this primary season, and the campaign style of Barack Obama, have reversed that trend, it is certainly true that they have had a profound impact on American politics. The very fact that the two primary Democratic candidates were a woman and a black man has played a large role in activating entire demographics. People want to be involved, they want to feel the excitement of being alive at a groundbreaking moment in history. And millions have followed Obama's call to exchange cynicism for hope.
What I find most inspiring about Obama is that he does not promise to change the course of the nation on his own: He demands that we, the people, change, too. Rebuilding the reputation of the American Dream and reviving the vision of the U.S. Constitution will take the determination and engagement of all citizens.
It was easy to be an active Obama supporter in my school community, but I had some doubts about doing the same once I returned to the valley. My memories of the local conservative majority -- with their not-very-funny jokes about getting shot if I was not careful -- gave me a certain sense of trepidation. A couple of weeks before the parade, while I was canvassing in the county seat, I met several people who did not like Obama because he is “black” or “Muslim” and as one man claimed, “believes in murder” -- i.e., abortion. So on July 4th, I took a deep breath before I walked onto the main street of Paonia.
To my surprise, for the most part we were met with resounding cheers, even timid clapping from pockets of people I would have presumed unsupportive. The few boos were overwhelmed by all the smiling support.
When you stand up for something in front of your home community, there is a much greater sense of exposure and consequently a deeper sense of satisfaction. I realized after the parade that while my experiences growing up in the valley had informed my hesitancy, they had also cultivated the very values that have led me to believe in Barack Obama: a deep appreciation for grassroots movements, integrity, authenticity and genuine gratitude—for the freedom of opportunity and kinship of community.
(The author will be a freshman this fall at Brown University in Providence, R.I.)