A New Age--The Ground is Definitely Shifting

Like most Americans, and millions around the world, I was moved by the inauguration of President Barack Obama on January 20. I had never seen an inauguration on TV or otherwise of any president until then. This is one inauguration I had to see, clinging on to Obama's words as well as listening closely to the other speakers and presentations.

Rick Warren's invocation fell flat. Aretha Franklin shook the rafters (even if it was outside). And Reverend Lowry hit a few high points at the end of this benediction. The musical interlude was also wonderful.

I'm also glad to hear Inaugural Poet Elizabeth Alexander, a friend and Tia Chucha Press poet, although her coming on right after Obama's speech was a mistake. People were already leaving. And her poem, which was low-key and contemplative, did not go well among the two million or so people who had come for rousing, uplifting, moving language. I can appreciate Elizabeth's words. But language has power and passion. The poem needed crescendos, lows and highs, deep thought as well as fiery images. However, afterwards I read a critique or two about her reading that weren't very kind. That's unfortunate. I feel Elizabeth did her job well, wrote her way, and tried to bring some simple images, natural rhythm and somber tone to the proceedings. It was fine, despite the many who felt she missed the mark. Her words were important, especially after Obama's declarations and hard-hitting manifesto.

Still, overall, it was truly a new beginning for this country, this world. President Obama made use of the words "New Age" more than once, and this is a recognition that we are indeed in a new time, a new epoch... a new age. We've been here before, but it is also a qualitatively new experience as well. He also said the ground was shifting beneath us. This is actually right. It's time for us to align our consciousness and plans to what the earth has been telling us for a long time--live in balance, take care of everyone, and take care of this earth.

What does this really mean? President Obama is putting forward some powerful ideas and programs. The economic stimulus plan, for example, does include getting people back to work, but mostly to rebuild our country, while also perhaps having them work according to their capacities to be creative, artistic, innovative. Many Republicans, who represent some of the bigger corporations and banks that have been stiffing us all these years, oppose his plan because for the most part these corporations and financial institutions can't profit from this stimulus plan--unlike the billions of dollars in bailouts, which only went to secure more profitability and has not shown any marked improvement in the economy.

Yes, Obama has quite a road ahead of him. But it's really our road. We all have to be active in insuring it's the right one. There are still many old guard politicians that are probably waiting for Obama to fail so they can get back on track to removing all barriers to unregulated profits. I know Obama is walking a tight rope, and in some cases is leaning toward the capitalist interests against those of the common people. But we need to also keep the pressure on. Obama cannot change this country without us.

What I'd say is that we should target the economic/social system that has taken us into this mess, not Obama. I'm convinced if Obama fails it will be because the intractable interests in the system won't change. These include those very real forces for war, free markets, and profitability at the expense of the majority of Americans and people of the world.

During the day, we had sixty students from a new high school in Hollywood come visit our current Tia Chucha's space to hear me talk, ask questions, buy books, and eat tamales. The teacher, Anji Williams, had been trying to bring these students to Tia Chucha's for some time. The students asked very good questions and were very respectful. These field trips have been going on for some time, about two a month during the school year. Obama's presidency was also a point to discuss with the students.

That afternoon, some of us at Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural, our staff and a few key volunteers, went to the new space we've just obtained at the Sylmar Plaza to do some prayers and blessings before we start the work of painting and preparing the space. We hope to be fully moved in and ready for business on March 1. Please go to www.tiachucha.com to get more information. This will include a Grand Opening date. If you can, sign up for our email blasts and, if at all possible, donate whatever you can on our Pay Pal account. This would be most appreciated.

Later that evening at our current Tia Chucha's site, we showed highlights of Obama's speech and inauguration to the community and had a rich dialogue about Obama's presidency, the power of real change, and what we have to do as people to keep forcing the change inspite of many obstacles or barriers.

We had young and old, Mexican/Central American, African American and European American. We had our Mexikayotl classes there--it's usually their night and they were gracious to let us have this talk. A Nahuatl-speaker from Mexico also attended. At the same time, I was on the air with Kimberly King and Michael Dacher of KPFK's "Beautiful Struggle" radio program to discuss Obama and the issues surrounding change.

To summarize what we ended up talking about, I'm re-printing part of an email that my friend, and LAUSD teacher, Sean Leys sent me after the talks, which he attended. With his permission. You can see the level of conversation, especially the dynamic between the younger people and the older people. It was something to see how respectful and attentive everyone was to each other. Here's Sean's words:

For a week I've been consciously trying to lower my expectations of Obama's speech today. Still, part of me just wouldn't stop believing that he truly is a progressive and that once elected, he will reveal himself a little more fully, that he will push boldly into his first 100 days, taking full advantage of the most profound mandate since the Reagan revolution. But I knew that was too much to hope for so I tried not to hope, despite the slogan and the posters and bumper stickers. Still, after hearing his speech today a couple of times, reading it, speaking about it with colleagues and students, I was disappointed. I mean, REALLY disappointed. I began to get depressed about it. Fortunately, one of my mentors, author Luis Rodriguez and his wife Trini were having an open dialogue about it at their cultural center, Tia Chucha's. I had already prepared myself for the disappointment and I knew I could count on Trini and Luis and the elders they would bring together to help me see this in a healthier way. I was right. I'd like to share what I took away from the discussion.

There were a dozen or two people there, all ages and ethnicities, just as I had hoped. We watched the speech, complete with its celebration of westward expansion, attack on communism, affirmation of free market capitalism, veiled threats against Hamas, and call for a return to traditional American values like patriotism. At the end, every one younger than me looked totally disheartened and everyone older looked excited. Some even clapped. I was glad. I knew I was going to receive a new way of looking at the day.

The conversation was rich. Several times I or one of the younger attendees would throw out a reason for our frustration, and one at a time, these frustrations were countered by the elders with a way to look at the situation that we had not seen. The logic went something like this. What is happening in America and the world right now is much larger than Obama. There is a movement, a tide, rising for change and Obama is riding it. Whether or not he is truly a part of it or he is simply using it is of less importance than the fact that it is so powerful that only by tapping into it was he able to become president. This explains how, when talking to students about today's speech, they completely miss its essentially conservative message. They see only the tide that he is riding. In addition to the tide, we are also experiencing what Luis described as a "falling away of the veils." The veil that hid the exploitation of nature has fallen away as we confront the reality of peak oil and climate change. The veil that hid the exploitation of working people by finance institutions has fallen away as we confront the reality of the financial crisis. And now, the veil that hides the complexity of ethnicity has fallen away as America confronts the reality of a biracial president.

As for whether or not Obama is a closet progressive, a case was made that he is. One elder, I didn't get his name but he reminded me of the old Black Panthers I met living and working in Watts, told a story of meeting Obama when he was at Occidental College. He told about how Obama once came down to a place called the Inner City Cultural Center and was radical enough in his Afrocentrism that the elder who was telling us the story thought Barak probably wasn't his given name, that he was probably named John or something but wanted to be called Barak because it better fit his political identity.

So then, why the conservative speech? Because, to quote de Tocqueville, "in a democracy, the people get the government they deserve." He is reflecting back to America who we are as a nation. Perhaps in this speech he is reflecting our lowest common denominator, but it is what it is. Also, it is significant that in this speech he reiterates his call for national service. As president he will be accountable to different degrees to the monied interests that back him AND the grassroots voters. I believe that his background as a community organizer, consistent with my experience as a community based teacher, leads him to believe that there is no better way to radicalize people than to put them to work in solidarity with oppressed people. His call for service is also a call for voters to become more progressive.

So then, what now? It was suggested that we do NOT attack Obama. Rather, point out the old power brokers that surround him and remind people that the old guard is what restrains him. Point out that it is the lack of a clear ideology that keeps this rising tide from demanding more revolutionary change. Yes, Obama was disturbingly silent on the issues of immigration and gay rights, but he will surely be sympathetic to grassroots demands for progress on these fronts if the demands are popular and clearly articulated. To expect much more from a national politician is to misunderstand the limits of national politics.

By the end of the conversation, there was consensus. No one was saying that we should "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain," but rather that real change comes from community organizing and that Obama is open to being accountable to that organizing. So the real work is back on us. There is a risk that people's faith in Obama, that the cult of personality that grows around him, will turn into cynicism as he fails to live up to the hype. But when his inevitable failures to produce real change from the top down become obvious, we must think of that as one more veil coming down, and that with our work, it will be seen for what it is: one more call for us, as a planet, to seek real and lasting truths beyond these veils. That real change will never come from leaders, it will come from all of us being human, humble, and in heartfelt solidarity with each other.

We have much work to do. This level of involvement is revolutionary and unprecedented. And, as I say, there will be many people, forces, and interests trying to hold us back. Let's keep our eyes on what's really behind our misery, and where the hope lies. As I said to one young person, even in a dry land, in a desert, we have to find ways to plant some seed, to nurture some flowering.


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