lessons from America

My Obama journey

A year ago – October 2007 – I was in Zambia for a British Council-run leadership course involving 200 people from across Africa. Barack Obama was a hot topic of conversation even then.  I wanted to take the opportunity a year on to email my African friends and let them know my experiences of supporting Obama and where that journey has taken me.  So on the plane over from London to Denver, I composed my thoughts.  Below is an edited version of that letter.  It is not the full answer to the “what drives you?”, “why are you so interested in this election?”, “why do you support Obama?” questions I am often asked, on both sides of the pond.  But hopefully it goes some way to explaining some of my passion and motivations.

Dear Interaction friends,

I want to share an exciting story with you: one which you have helped shape, which involves me being there in the stadium that historic night in August when Barack Obama accepted the nomination, and one which hopefully should culminate on 4th November, with the election of Obama. Inshallah.

Remember back to the ‘African Wall of Greatness’ exercise. One of the 3 bricks I created displayed the cover to Barack Obama’s book ’The Audacity of Hope’. As I explained at the time, I chose it for two reasons: (i) the way that phrase and what it means – the optimism and drive often despite the adversities – to me encapsulates the African spirit; and (ii) Obama himself – his values and politics, and also the positive symbol of achievement that he represents, for America(ns), and for Africa(ns). I recall some positive and quite emotional responses. Given that this was before a vote had even been cast in the primary elections, your knowledge and appreciation of Obama and hope for his victory was impressive; and it brought home to me what his candidacy obviously meant, and the power of that.

And I have taken those sentiments with me, on my Obama journey ever since. I have closely followed every little twist and turn of the election campaign; staying up late at night to watch live on screen the events unfolding, and tracking the conversations and first-hand experiences of activists via websites and blogs. Obama’s speeches, especially the ones during the Primary campaign, were moving and inspirational. It wasn’t just how he delivered them but the actual words; reflecting so much of the values and spirit of ubuntu, community, collective action and leadership that were integral to the Interaction programme.

The other aspect I have so enjoyed and been inspired by has been following, learning about, witnessing in action and finally taking part in the grassroots movement and new technologies that are driving progressive politics and the success of Obama’s campaign. It is humbling to see people get so involved, to see the process of – in Obama’s words – “brick by brick, block by block, calloused hand by calloused hand, we can change the world”. And it also fires me up: both to want to take part, and also to try and apply those lessons to my job and to political activity in the UK in general. To give you but one example from Obama’s campaign: the ‘50 state strategy’. Put simply it is about a commitment to campaigning and organising in every part of America, rather than targeting just a few states that traditionally decide elections. It is about saying to millions ‘your voice, your vote matters’; and that community organising and investment in people is worth it. That means a lot to me.

The more I have been following the Obama campaign, the more I have been fired up by it; wanted to follow it more; be part of it; learn from it; share my passion and learning with others; and be further enthused by people’s response. It’s been a reinforcing cycle that’s meant I have enthusiastically devoted ever increasing amounts of my time and energy to it.

The upshot is that this year I have been living my passion and my dream. Some highlights of that journey:

1) Hosting a ‘Super Tuesday’ party (the biggest election night during the period when the presidential candidates are chosen) . The date happened to fall during Module 3 [of the Interaction course], and so I organised a party in my hotel room and invited all the UK Interaction participants and trainers along. My enthusiasm for Obama was obviously infectious, as 12 of us squeezed into my room from midnight to watch the results and to learn, discuss, eat and drink. It was a case in point of “if you build it, they will come”.

2) Experiencing the atmosphere of the Democratic Convention in Denver.  Being part of the ‘Big Tent’ – seeing and learning from the activists and the netroots (bloggers) in action.

3) Invesco stadium: Barack Obama’s nomination acceptance speech. As I wrote at the time: “I was there to witness history being made. I was there to celebrate Obama’s nomination with 80,000 Democrats (and a lot of media). I was there to stand up for change.”

And now …

4) US Elections trip – experiencing and participating in the final ten days of the campaign; hopefully ending up in Chicago – Obama’s hometown – for election night itself.  Canvassing (going door-to-door)  and volunteering at campaign events en route.


October 26, 2008 Posted by | global perspective, the world wants obama | , , , | Leave a comment

An African perspective

Back home in England, two sets of good friends got married today. I chose to be in Denver and with the Democrats at this time, but it still makes me a little sad to be missing these happy occasions and time spent with friends.  So mazel tov and I’m thinking of you Danny, and Arry & Keith. 

But something does connect these friends, Denver and Obama: Africa.  Africans. And the audacity of hope.  Arry I first met whilst living in Tanzania; Keith when campaigning on drop the debt and other international social justice issues; and Danny on the British Council’s Interaction leadership programme, which has at its heart the philosophy of ubuntu and the celebration of what’s good from and we can learn from the continent.

Danny and I spent a week in Zambia, attending a conference with 200 community leaders from across Africa.  That was back last October, and already the positive support for Obama amongst the delegates there was papable.  They were proud of Obama – his Kenyan roots, his dark skin – and they were excited by his message.  And the ‘audacity of hope’ that Obama wrote about was very much part of their lives and resonated hugely with them. 

 That overwhemingly positive reaction continues to this day.  Even the Senegalese taxi driver who i just got a lift from this evening enthused about Obama and the opportunities that his presidency might open up – in foreign relations, in community relations, and in the self-worth (and maybe even real-worth) of Africans.

August 25, 2008 Posted by | global perspective, the world wants obama | , , , , | Leave a comment