Obama ’08 Campaign Paducah, KY
Each day when I wake up, I think of how can I live a purposeful life. The answer is always found in the last words I can remember hearing from my grandmother. “Be intentional about everything you do,” she said. As head of the nurse unit and deaconess board at church, stewardship was a deliberate art for my grandmother. She didn’t just say she cared about family, faith, and community; she lived it. If you needed food, shelter, or clothing, she would give you what she had or find additional resources. When reports of domestic abuse became prevalent in our community, she was among those who led the initiative to address the issue. She died of stomach cancer when I was nine leaving huge shoes to fill. Her commitment to servant leadership is the example I have tried emulate throughout my life and has driven my decision to work in higher education.
My commitment to this example was tested, after a decision to follow my convictions led me across the country in support of the 2008 democratic nominee for president, Barack Obama. I struggled every time I found myself standing on the doorstep of reluctant constituents who demanded to know what was in it for them. During one such encounter, I was in Paducah, KY being grilled about healthcare by a woman who had survived breast cancer. She was the primary caregiver for her terminally ill daughter and two elementary school aged granddaughters. Laid off her job at a local manufacturing plant, she had no health insurance to speak of and had depleted her savings paying for treatments. This woman didn’t want to hear platitudes about hope or change. To her, both were naturally occurring phenomena, if you waited long enough or died. I had no solutions. The Affordable Care Act wasn’t a law yet and it probably wasn’t enough to help her anyway. All I could do was listen and promise to share her story. That was it.
When I walked away, her two granddaughters followed me up the road on their bikes as I read notes scribbled on the back of the list of remaining door steps I had to visit. They asked what seemed like fairly intrusive and annoying questions about my personal life as we went: “Do you have any kids? Where do you live? Do you have a boyfriend? Why not? Do you work? Are you in college? Do you live by yourself?” My answers were: No, St. Louis, no, because reasons, yes, yes, and yes. I stopped walking when the eldest who appeared to sum up all of my answers in one quizzical stare asked, “you can do that?” Caught completely off guard, I almost shouted, “of course.” It never occurred to me that you could not or that for some little girls going to college and living independently was not something that was expected. I didn’t have any written notes for this.
As I stood there, I finally began to see them for who they were, two younger versions of myself. They were two little black girls, who lived on the side town yet to be gentrified by well-meaning interlopers who ornamented plantation style houses with quirky lawn sculptures then bragged about how they rescued their homes from being a crack dens. They were two little black girls being raised by a hardworking woman of unflinching courage who was doing the very best she could in less than ideal circumstances. They were two little black girls looking at me, a woman who literally and figuratively stood on the dividing lines between both the worlds of haves and have nots, never quite belonging to either. I should not have been estranged to them but I was. I think I must have given a rousing speech about being and doing whatever you want because both girls got off their bikes to embrace me before riding off together.
After I crossed back over to the haves on the other side and was out of their line of sight, I began to cry a little. Not for them, for me. For the first time, I questioned my own motives for being there in the first place. Sure, I had been across the country and back but I was little more than a beggar hustling for votes and hoping for substance. Did I really want to make a difference? Was I being intentional about serving others or was I being fashionable? The way those girls looked at me – I hoped it was more than fashion. Sure, I went to church every Sunday offering prayers for the less fortunate, paying tithes, thanking God for all of my things, hoping that I don’t lose it all, and volunteering when I could. I am a good person, but why did I feel like a pretender?
If I was being intentional, I had to stop ignoring the fact that the issues of race, class, economics, and opportunity had shelf lives longer than my attention span during any given election or news cycle. If I was being intentional, I would have to be fully committed to building a better reality for those girls and scores of other children just like them in America. Years later, I would find myself swept up in sea of pink flooding the city streets of St. Louis. Lost amid the frenzied excitement of women young and old taking selfies, waving placards, and shouting into megaphones; I found myself searching. Where are my girls? What have they become? Did their mother make it? Is their grandmother still looking for work? Are they marching too? I think of them at least once a day because they remind me to stay committed to my grandmother’s example and to not be won over by short term gains.
Give of yourself wholeheartedly and thoughtfully and it won’t matter what day of the week it is or who is President, because you labor with purpose. Whether I am stepping into a classroom, office, or out into the community, the memory of those girls is always with me. The way they looked at me, made me strive to be a better steward.