I am not a comfortable flier. I don’t mind much of it except the takeoffs and landings. And the prospect of four of those certainly had my nerves on edge. But this fall, with some vacation time on my hands and campaign news in my brain, I felt compelled to step up and do something that mattered to me — and so I did, flying to the battle ground state of Ohio to volunteer in the projects of Cleveland for the Obama campaign. The take-offs and landings were a small price I’d have to pay.
After an all-day flight, I arrived at a rather upscale strip mall of clothing boutiques and electronics outlets. Feeling upbeat and a little at home, I headed through the parking lot to the huge Ohio for Change storefront and passed a woman on the phone to her insurance agent. Her car window had just been smashed and everything ripped from the dashboard. Not a comforting beginning, and for a guy who’s never been in a Rust Belt inner city before, the incident clouded my expectations and raised some personal fears for the days to come.
My job the next day was to visit with residents in several neighborhoods asking folks if they’ve already early voted or were going to wait until Tuesday, Election Day.
I was a little taken aback at how run-down most of Cleveland was. Building after building was boarded up and vacant. One in five houses in the neighborhoods I was canvassing was condemned and abandoned. These were neighborhoods of poor people. I found myself having to force down a fear of being mugged, robbed and shot.
But at my first door, the people were friendly beyond belief. That there was someone from Oregon on their porch working for the candidate they supported, floored them. And the scene repeated itself at every door. Wearing my Oregon State windbreaker with my Surfers for Obama button was an appealing ice breaker. As the day went on, and in the days to come, kids would clamor for the stickers and buttons I was handing out. The fear of being in the ‘hood had been lifted by the very people I had been afraid of.
I began noticing how well-kept each home was, the walls that were without graffiti, the sparkling mass-transit system. More importantly, I began noticing how each person I met was glowing with anticipation. And there questions were always this: “Do you think we can pull it off?” It was always the expression of “we,” poor African-American big city dwellers and me, a white guy from Oregon.
I recently turned 57, and while that may not be old, I am sometimes confronted with the realization that there might not be too many years for me to make an impact on the world. I’ll probably never be a Lincoln, a Gandhi, a Pauling or a King, and I may never write a book. But there are little things I can do — little things we can do collectively that can add up to great things.
Volunteering allowed me to tell myself: “I made a difference.” Even if the other candidate had won, I had forced myself to do something different, and I had played my part in doing my part.
When I arrived home, I found my wife had created a ‘You are my HERO’ poster for me. Yes, it means a lot that she’s proud of me. But nobody is more proud of me that I am.
Jon Dowd is an information technology consultant for the Community Network at Oregon State University.