Laura Hershey: Writer, Poet, Activist, Consultant Rotating Header Image

November, 2008:

What the Obama Victory Means to Me

The election of Barack Obama has so many different meanings. Around the world, millions of people watched yesterday as Obama declared victory, and each one experienced her or his own particular mix of emotions. Some, of course, were reacting to the changes ahead with dismay, anger, even fear. But a large majority were clearly moved by feelings of joy, relief, anticipation, astonishment, expectation, healing and — that word that has rung across the land throughout this campaign — hope.

I see his triumph from a variety of perspectives.

As a Coloradan, I’m elated that our state went so blue! Even though Obama had already reached the requisite 270 electoral votes before Colorado’s ballots were counted, I certainly feel more at home here in my home state than I ever have before. (And I’m proud of all the hours that my sister-in-law Lynn Marie, and my nephews Henry and Daniel, put into canvassing Denver neighborhoods for the Obama campaign.)

As a person with a disability, I felt a powerful sense of belonging when Obama, during his victory speech, acknowledged the diversity and inclusiveness of the United States — “young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled…” During his campaign, Obama convened some very smart disability policy advisers, and crafted a thoughtful, progressive disability issues platform. Nevertheless, his election night speech was the first time that I had heard Obama implicitly tell the whole nation that disabled people are an integral part of our society.

As an activist, I’m excited about the possibilities for grassroots advocacy and change from the bottom up. During the formative years of his career, Obama worked as a community organizer, and I believe he still respects and values that process. Throughout his campaign, he has challenged us as citizens to engage in our communities, to work proactively for the changes we want. I am confident that he was referring to more than just getting him elected. For activists, just as for the President-elect, the real work is just beginning.

Remembering Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel, who died last Friday at the age of 96, lived a rich, joyous life full of rabble-rousing and storytelling. He recorded hundreds of radio interviews and commentaries, and published several books of oral history and memoir.

I especially appreciated Terkel’s contribution to the field of oral history, which he sometimes called “guerrilla journalism.” He interviewed hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of ordinary Americans, and documented their views and experiences in books about war, work, race, faith, hope, and death. He gave voice to all kinds of people, not through the manipulative modern mechanisms of focus groups and polls, but just by asking open-ended questions, and listening respectfully to the answers.

For the last decade or so of his life, Terkel joined the ranks of people with disabilities — as most people will, if they live long enough! Characteristically, Terkel took his age-related impairments in stride. He spoke openly about the “caregivers” who provided his daily personal assistance, as well as about his mobility and hearing impairments. During one interview in 2003, when he was 91 years old, Terkel remarked on both the naturalness of disability, and the alternative perspective that it can sometimes provide:

“By the way, I have a difficult time hearing, and I may miss some of Harry’s comments and misunderstand them. I try to answer them as I think they are. Sometimes having a hearing impairment is very good. It gets you closer to the truth. For example, during the few days of Bush’s triumph in Iraq, we heard the phrase ’embedded journalists,’ continuously. But to my ear, it comes out ‘in bed with journalists.’ And so you see, hearing impairment does away with euphemisms. We compose it to a higher truth.”

Terkel never claimed to be an “objective” journalist. He wanted things to change, and he celebrated those people throughout history who organized and advocated for change. Here’s another quote from that same 2003 interview:

“There was Thomas Paine. There was Samuel Adams. They were activists. The abolitionists, they were activists. Then came the sixties, the black people, the students — activists… It may seem as though the odds are against them… but they have that thing called hope, others are imbued with it, too. That’s why I honor them…”

And I honor Studs Terkel, whose life and work continues to imbue so many people with hope.