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Thursday, January 19, 2017

All the good you can: the path forward in Donald Trump's America

He may not have actually said it, it turns out, but John Wesley, a cofounder of Methodism, is often credited with having imparted this wisdom: "do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can." In the 2016 presidential campaign, this saying became the motto for Methodist Hillary Clinton's campaign.

As a volunteer on the Clinton campaign, I especially appreciated this slogan. The high school I attended, Wyoming Seminary in Kingston, Pennsylvania, also embraced this motto. The school was founded by Methodists so it made sense that this ostensibly Wesley-originating quote was prominently featured on Sem's campus.

Whenever I heard that message uttered at Sem - "do all the good you can" - I was reminded that there was a higher calling and a broader purpose to the grind of school, to the work I wanted to do. When candidates like Hillary Clinton don't succeed in elections, it's important for progressives, for Democrats, and for anyone who is concerned about the future of our country under President Donald Trump to remember that why we became involved in the first place. For me, part of that motivation was my community.

When I canvassed and made phone calls for President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign in the Wilkes-Barre area, I saw a side of my hometown that I had read about and understood intellectually, as much as I could at that point, but didn't get to see up close and personal much. Voters told me they were looking to support change because they struggled with medical bills, gas prices, and discrimination. To them, these issues and frustrations consumed their lives so much so that they couldn't be as fully productive and energetic as they wished to be. Working for them, doing all the good you can for them, in any way, is what the spirit of progressivism and being Democrats should be all about.

Within this community though there are imperfections. There are deeply troubling sentiments that pervade corners of our neighborhoods; to deny that the nativist Trump campaign preyed on those fears, in my community and other parts of our country, would be delusional. But John Wesley would not want progressives to turn their backs on the least of us. Our brothers and sisters who suffer in poverty, often through no fault of their own, should be treated with "malice towards none and charity for all," as an actually great Republican president preached, regardless of their imperfections.

On the other hand, hate must be rooted out, regardless of economic anxiety. That requires us to seek out the "bravery that resides in every heart," as NEPA's own Joe Biden extolled -- light it, overcome fear, and know that whether it be in your own community or online or in your private interactions, that strength will build your character and strengthen your values. These battles though, aiding the disadvantaged and battling bigotry, need not be mutually exclusive. In fact, the sun is setting now on a presidency that showed us just that as Barack Obama united Americans of all backgrounds, from the small city of Kingston, Pennsylvania to the glitz and glamor of Hollywood, to his side to advance a more progressive America.

So what does this kind of path forward look like concretely? It means identifying the greatest needs in your community and addressing them in measurable ways. It means putting in the blood, sweat, and tears that local politics requires: getting the signatures to put a progressive on the ballot, knocking on doors for that candidate, and writing letters to the editor to make their voice heard -- or doing it yourself.

It means standing up to bullies in your own backyard, in speaking out, even in intimate settings, if you hear something that contradicts your values. It means investing in genuine public service, not just paying it lip service. It means putting your money where your mouth is so shared prosperity isn't just a pipe dream. It means doing all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can. That's our path forward in Donald Trump's America.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

What Obama meant to me

When you grow up with an unusual name in a homogenous community, you are bound to experience all sorts of intrigued reactions when you introduce yourself or even just exist in that universe. "Where are you from?" is a common refrain. (Or "where are you really from?") Responses can range from the genuinely curious to pure indignity.

People project on to you all sorts of emotions, feelings, and fears that have followed them through life, that are displayed regularly on their television screens, and that permeate our culture. It is that fear that produces suspicious sentiments like "this is America, please speak English."

But that reaction, I know, deeply, is contrary to our core identity; it was an American hero, Abraham Lincoln, after all who implored us to appeal to our "better angels." A strain of xenophobia in our history exists but so does a society that adapted, that welcomed immigrants in a way unlike most other advanced democracies, that made people like my parents feel like they are Americans. 

Nobody spoke more compellingly to that optimistic view of our country, in our modern political history, than Barack Obama. When he landed on the national political stage in 2004, he spoke in terms about our country, as Chris Matthews said, like no other politician had in decades, perhaps since Bobby Kennedy.

It wasn't that he brushed aside those stains on our culture. He accepted, acknowledged, and understood them but he embraced a version of American exceptionalism that demonstrated that we were unique because we actually were, and could be, better than all that. That capacity for self-improvement for a nation was demonstrated in our own progress in elevating Obama to power. People with "funny names," immigrants, their children -- there was a place in America for them, too. "Omeed's a pretty good name," said the most powerful person in our country.

It was the same country where others have denigrated me for my heritage and my ethnicity. Nevertheless, that attitude did not define us. It was the election, and the reelection, of President Obama that spoke more about us. Nothing can change the fact that that's part of our history; we still did that and we still appealed to the better angels of our nature. We stand out on the world stage for being one of the small handful of countries to have elected an ethnic minority to the highest office in the land.

For me, and millions of others in our country and around the world, the Obama presidency has been a deeply emotional journey, impactful in immeasurable ways. As our country strived to become a more perfect Union, my own progression, as I came of age in the Obama era, was one marked by renewed possibilities. "If our country is ready to elect Barack Hussein Obama as president, in thirty years, it can be ready for" an Iranian-American president, perhaps, my family friend (a two-time Obama voter) wondered aloud. 

I was interested in politics but with the rise of Obama, I became passionate about it because I could relate to him. His 2008 campaign was the first political campaign I got involved in, in fact. I am a liberal Democrat and I support his policies but my affinity for our first black president went beyond that. He and his campaign represented the notion that it was okay to be different, that we should celebrate and embrace that difference, rather than bully or mock it. It was a validation but so too were the actual, tangible accomplishments of the Obama era.

For Iranian-Americans, it was an "open hand," a message of Nowruz greetings, an agreement that both eliminated a potential nuclear weapon and improved dialogue. No U.S. president before understood Iran in the way this president did, with all of the complications, complexities and animosities that existed in these countries' histories with one another. But he also knew the deep appreciation and love, truly, that Iranians have for America, its people, and its democratic history. To see up close and personal Iranian-Americans, some of the most pro-American people you'll meet, dancing in front of the White House after the passage of the Iran deal, just blocks from my college campus? A powerful sight unthinkable just years before.

Barack Obama's personal qualities were immensely appealing too: his calm in difficult moments, his comfort in his own skin, his confidence in his own judgment, his discipline in his lifestyle, his focus on details, his selflessness in working as a community organizer rather than taking corporate gigs he easily could have landed and his loyalty to his family. As someone who was a teenager when Obama took office and is halfway through law school as he leaves office, having that kind of role model on a national stage was particularly meaningful.

In these ways, though specific policy achievements are at risk, there is a permanence to Barack Obama's legacy. The indelible impact of his leadership and of his promise, of all he symbolizes and exudes, is felt in my upbringing, is appreciated by millions, and is enduring in our society. His presidency brought into focus the "better angels" of our culture. 

Our collective identity is, and forever will be, one where "all things are possible" (said the then-president elect on that balmy November night in 2008), one where we can achieve what the "cynics said we could not do" (said the victorious black candidate in the heavily white state of Iowa), and one where, yes, even someone with a funny name can make it and make a difference.