Today, I gave a speech at Occupy Boston on taking seriously then-candidate Obama’s challenge that “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time.”
Here’s an audio re-creation of the speech:
Here’s the transcript:
We are the Change that we Seek – presented @ Occupy Boston on October 16, 2011
We should care a lot more about what happens to Obama than we do about what happens to Barack.
Barack is a 50-year-old man who lives in Washington, D.C.
Obama is a set of hopes and commitments regarding the future of our country.
Barack is a President who has occasionally accomplished things and occasionally disappointed.
Obama is a body of ideas and practices that might just solve our nation’s great public problems.
Barack is going to remain in power for four more years if he wins re-election.
But the fate of Obama … is going to be determined by much more than how many people we can get to enter a voting booth next November.
On election night in 2008 — when millions of young people around the country were cheering, singing and rallying together — I had thought that we were celebrating the first shot of a revitalized movement…. a launch party of sorts for the years of collective problem solving work we had in store for us. Barack was kicking down the door to a new era and we — the people! — were going to storm in!
We knew that the nation that had created “My Super Sweet Sixteen” could also create a health care system where every citizen was cared for; that we could transform our energy system into one that didn’t rely on moody foreign governments selling us underground earth-warming black goop; that we could strike at the root of why 2.5 million Americans go to sleep in a prison every night; that, at the very least, we could figure out a way to make our Congress select for members who are good at legislating, as opposed to the current skill it selects for: dialing donors for dollars. We were set to solve these problems!!
But, after Inauguration Day, the entire Obama youth movement packed up and went home…their mission ‘accomplished’. Instead of making change, we just waited. We though the President we carried to the White House would solve everything for us.
This is the original sin of our generation’s civic young adulthood: we committed to one man…and not to a body of good ideas. As it turns out, we had not been celebrating Obama on election night… we had been celebrating Barack.
Our generation thought it was a clean break that night: Goodbye George, Hello Barack; Goodbye Seinfeld Reruns, Hello TEDTalks; Goodbye Lost Decade, We have found our way!. But then we were back… three years later and that cynicism that our generation had tried so hard to avoid — that disappointment in government feeling that was supposed to be left with the last decade, the last generation — was back again. “How could this happen, again? I thought he was different!” whisper millions under their breath.
But, history — and especially American history — teaches that we should not be surprised at all. Of course it is not the leaders we elect who bring major change to government policy. It is social movements and citizen projects from outside of government that force those leaders to act.
Lincoln penned the Emancipation Proclamation, but abolitionists provided the link. FDR signed off on the New Deal, but for the workers’ movement, it was old news. Maybe Nixon proposed the Environmental Protection Agency ‘cuz he was tree hugger at heart… or maybe he faced the biggest environmental movement in history!
I’m not letting Barack off the hook. His administration still lacks coherent vision, courage, and imagination.
But, perhaps the story we should be telling now is not, “The President failed us, so it is time that we step it up” — perhaps it is “The President failed us because we did not step it up!” Barack needed Obama, and we did not BRING IT TO HIM!
If you ever wrote your email down anywhere during 2008 — be it onBarackObama.com, on a clipboard held by some scraggly bearded 20-something at your door or accidentally scribbled on a napkin anywhere in the vicinity of Iowa or New Hampshire — it is likely that you are still getting bombarded with messages about how you can help Barack out in the coming year. I want to take this time to give two mindsets about how you can forget about Barack and start helping Obama out this year:
ONE: Learn the lesson that Lincoln, FDR and Nixon all learned: a President and Congress might be in office, but we, the people, are in charge. Take seriously citizen movements outside of establishment politics that are strategizing to set the agenda of those who are in office.
TWO: Start seeing that the federal government isn’t the only force that governs our lives. We are also governed by state governments, local governments, media, the internet, neighbors, clubs, corporations, churches, universities, and even social networks. These are forces we can harness to solve great public problems ourselves. We can join our local and state governments and boards, start and support businesses that are more in line with our vision for a sustainable future, and spearhead creative community projects that solve problems big and small. I can take over my local party chapter and commandeer it to fit our vision of how the national party should be operationg. Me and my buddies can form a task force to rebuild local infrastructure while sitting around a table at McDougall’s bar after work, I can become a citizen expert on global energy networks and tell my state delegate about what she’s ignoring using only Brookline Public Library.. We can start our own media, our own cultural movements, and not just react to others agendas, but set…our…own!
This path to change isn’t easy — no single pill can cure your weight problem…and no President can solve the problems that our country is facing.
And no single citizen needs to solve them alone.. We can each take on a piece of our national public problems. Pick something specific or local, become an expert on it, form a group among your friends or co-workers, propose a solution, test it out, reflect, test, repeat. If Barack won’t achieve the Obama dream, perhaps we can crowdsource Obama!
An insightful Presidential Candidate once said in 2008 that “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”
I think it’s time that we start to take him at his word.