Riding on the excitement of the Obama election--but now it's time to work

I’ve just finished talks in three North Carolina cities, which began a day after the election of Barack Obama for President. I have been to North Carolina sporadically since my big visit there in early 2000 when I was part of the largest writer’s residency in the state’s history. The North Carolina Writers Network and the North Carolina Arts Council, in collaboration with countless community organizations, schools, writers, and others, had me drive from one end of the state to the other—from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Outer Banks—for ten weeks. I drove in snow and through beautiful green fields. I ended up doing 21 events a week—at universities, colleges, schools, churches, migrant camps, prisons, juvenile detention centers, workspaces, and the Cherokee reservation to speak about poetry, culture, and healing community.

I'm not complaining--I loved it. And the NC Writers Network and Arts Council did a heroic job in organizing this (which I was ensured they'd never do again).

The aim was to address the 600 percent rise in the “Latino” population (mostly from Mexico, but also Guatemala, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Peru, and other countries). It was one of the most exciting, rewarding and educational ventures of my life. I spoke to whites, African Americans, and “Latinos” in packed Town Hall meetings, which I’ve also done around the country for a couple of decades.

This time, I went to Winston-Salem to speak at the Salem Academy & College, a girl’s prep school and women’s college, considered the oldest institution for women in the country (although men are allowed in the continuing education program). Started by Moravians, a religious group in the early days of the nation, it was also the first school to accept an African American woman (in the mid-1700s!) and Native Americans (later in the early 1800s). Today it is a very prestigious and academically high rated institution with a 28 percent enrollment of people of color (quite high if compared with other private institutions).

I had two dinners with students, administrators and community members. I met young women from across the country, as well as Nepal and Mexico (from San Luis Potosi and Guerrero). I had a great discussion with one Native woman, Cherokee, who was also a former gang member and drug addict—we shared many stories and healing ideas from the indigenous in our lives. I also addressed honor students, which was an amazing talk about the elections, social change and the hope we can all have in an Obama presidency. The last evening, I addressed a rather large audience, perhaps 200 people, of school and community people to rousing applause. There was a great energy that night that I think was part of the excitement of last Tuesday’s election.

From Winston-Salem, I drove in a rental car to Charlotte, NC where I was to keynote the opening of the 1,200 participant conference of the Coalition of Essential Schools. This organization is the premier group in progressive education in the country, based in Rhode Island. Teachers, administrators and students came from all over the country (I even saw a young man I worked with this summer from LA’s Eagle Rock High School). I was well received as I read a poem, exhorted the group to fight for real change in our schools, for each child and young person to live out their stories, and to have the proper resources and tools so they can infuse the world with their internal gifts. In the end I received a standing ovation, quite an honor, for which I’m truly grateful.

The next morning, Thursday, I drove to the Charlotte Airport to fly into Wilmington, NC. By then the news came out that North Carolina had voted for Obama, a rare thing from a Southern conservative state, but quite significant. Perhaps part of my 2000 residency helped plant some seeds in a state that once had ex-Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke address crowds against immigrants. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to do so, but I’d like to think I helped.

Wilmington also has the terrible distinction of being the site of the destruction of one of the country’s leading intellectual and economically developed African American communities in a race riot that killed hundreds of African Americans. The White ex-slavers and power brokers made sure no African American would have a beacon of what could be possible. That was in 1898, one-hundred-and-ten years ago. Yet today the state turned out for Barack Obama. That’s change. Yes, the remnants of those times, of the racism that has permeated this country for centuries, are still here. But the ground for racism has become shallow and will be even shallower as time passes. It won’t go away, but a new conversation about what really matters for most people will turn this on its head. What matters is how we live in a healthy society and environment for all, and how we will meet the basic needs of everyone—regardless of race.

In Wilmington, I spoke to about 15 high-school youth, and a number of community activists, about expression and empowerment in these troubled times. Several of the young people read their own poetry. Amazing work. They were mostly part of Dreams, an arts-based community organization that has taken some of these kids when they were eight and now at age 15 are truly expressive and bold.

I later did a community talk at the University of North Carolina, sponsored by Communities in Schools, to an attentive group of university and community people, including young people and a few from the Spanish-speaking community. Again, we addressed the power of this time to organize, to revolutionize our institutions, and to begin to find the common points that will allow our communities to thrive in the midst of hard financial times and war.

I’m using Obama’s election to expand our ideas about cooperation, organization, imagination and real revolutionary work for today. I’m honored to be part of this army of innovation and imagination that is vital if we are to move forward in this country, and in the world.

By the way, I returned today on a plane with about thirty competitors in the latest “American Idol” national eliminations. They came from the South and the East Coast. A cameraman from the TV series took shots and interviews on the plane. And when we landed at LAX – these competitors were Hollywood bound – they had to do more filming on the plane after everyone else left. I wish them all well.


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