Participating in History

From his announcement joining the Democratic primaries in February, 2007, to his inauguration on January 20, 2009, Barack Obama has incited an unparalled following among young voters. This is the story of one student’s involvement in his campaign up to, and including, his inauguration.

I came alone to the inauguration, but I am joined here by a throng of two million individuals. To my left an elderly grandfather leans on a cane next to his wife while their three granddaughters snuggle under a blanket. On my right are two doctoral students, friends who study far apart but are united for this momentous day. A few rows ahead, a mob of boisterous college students with patriotically painted faces are toasting with contraband vodka. The teenager in front of me keeps stepping on my shoe, but that’s ok; I haven’t been able to feel my toes since 7 AM. The atmosphere is electric, the cold completely brutal, and the weight of the historic ritual palpable. After two years of anxious hope, I could be nowhere else on this brilliant day than planted in front of the Washington monument in our nation’s capital.

I first heard Barack Obama nearly five years ago when he spoke at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. A senior in college, I had joined a gathering at a friend’s apartment to watch the closing night’s televised festivities. For eighteen minutes I sat in rapt attention as this fresh-faced senator with a strange name delivered the most profound political speech I had ever heard. He set his own stunning story within an eloquent expression of his vision of a unified America. This senator was not an ordinary politician.

Obama announced his candidacy for President on February 10, 2007. Like millions of other young women, I felt torn. Just three weeks earlier Hillary Clinton had done the same, and I had given her my support and a donation. Although I remained excited by Hillary’s candidacy, I began to hope that this extraordinary man could contend for the Democratic nomination. And as the spring slid into summer I found myself inching closer to his campaign.

That fall, I met a student at Columbia Law School who was a fervent Obama supporter. We talked politics on our first date, and second, and third. Our discussions of the election became a catalyst for our romance, and in turn kept us both glued to the headlines. As my daily news consumption bordered on gluttony, I planted both feet firmly in Obama’s camp. The primaries were focusing on Clinton, Obama, and Edwards, though it was soon clear the fight would boil down to the first two. Beginning to regret my earlier support for Clinton, I made a matching donation to Obama’s campaign and pledged to volunteer as much as I could throughout the long primary cycle ahead.

Over the next eight months I charted my life by the calendar of primaries, with hours in phone banks and rallies bookending those of my real job. Personal milestones were marked by their proximity to the Iowa Caucuses, Super Tuesday, and the day he gained enough delegates to win the nomination: June 3, 2008. I got the news that he had clinched the nomination while I was backpacking in Central America, and I cheered loudly enough to frighten the staff at my hostel. A trio of German twenty-somethings joined my refrain once they glimpsed the headline on my computer screen. That moment heralded a change in the world’s perception of the US. For the remainder of my trip the revelation that I was American prompted elated questions about Obama instead of the disdainful smirks and sarcastic quips I had encountered travelling through Europe the year before.

August arrived, and I moved to Boston to begin my first year at Harvard Business School. As I searched for my place in a class of 900 I was surprised and relieved that so many of my classmates shared my passion about this election and politics in general. Throughout the fall semester I watched convention speeches and debates with Analytics friends and the HBS Democrats and took advantage of only-at-Harvard events like a small-group dinner with former governor of Iowa Tom Vilsack.

The weekend before the election a handful of us traveled to New Hampshire to go door-to-door for Obama and Democratic Senate candidate Jeanne Shaheen. And on election night I sat in the Grille with my sectionmates, TVs tuned to CNN, laptops directed at a handful of blogs, constantly refreshing. As the results poured in the fervor grew, and the moment Senator Obama became President-elect was overwhelming. Tears flowed freely as I hugged my new friends and as texts of “Yes We DID!” began filling my blackberry. Listening to his speech that night I knew that I needed to be there for his first day in office; I needed to attend the inauguration. So on January 19, with apologies to professors and a direct flight to Reagan International, I headed to Washington.

What startled me the most when I arrived in DC were not the widely anticipated crowds. And I had prepared as best I could for the cruel cold and blustering winds. Instead, what I found so surprising was the unity and pride on display on the streets of the district, showcasing a national spirit akin to the mythical soul of a small town. Strangers struck up conversations on the Metro, skipping past the awkward small talk and picking up somewhere mid-sentence. People of all ages, races, and creeds walked shoulder to shoulder, navigating detours and bottlenecked streets, descending upon the mall in lockstep. There was joy in the air, no doubt about that. But there was also ownership. Nearly everyone I met had a story about their involvement in this election, from full-time campaign volunteers down to first-time voters still carrying around their registration card.

Here on the national mall, as I gather alongside two million people, we are at the brink of a new era of American leadership. We are joined by a global audience that is learning to believe again in the promise of America. This moment is evidence that hope is not always na’ve, and that change can come as long as we pledge to participate as stakeholders instead of spectators. I am so proud to have played a part in this process, and I cannot wait to see what comes next.