Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

09 Nov 2012, 7:36 a.m.


Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2012 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

I decided to transcribe the speech in which newly reelected US President Barack Obama thanks his campaign staff and reflects on his own experience as a community organizer. I hope this helps nonnative English speakers and the Deaf. (.srt file available for download even! I'm not sure how to tell YouTube to use this instead of its superlatively awful automatic captions.) But I really just wanted to get his words right so I could talk about them.

In June 2008, the new Democratic Presidential candidate, Barack Obama, gave a speech to his campaign staff that Leonard and I watched. I was a project manager at a webdev shop, thinking about what "politics" means and admiring Obama's campaign for its "transparency, trust, boldness, and long-term investment and empowerment of non-bosses". I thought about Obama's viral leadership model: he doesn't just want to be that kind of leader, he wants to make you that kind of leader. And I loved the audacity of only doing effective things.

Four years and change later, I've become more and more like his audience, and like him. I became a community organizer, albeit in open source rather than electoral politics. I work to train contributors to mentor each other and to run events. I argue that we shouldn't do ineffective things, even if they're tradition. And in his 2008 speech, when he says:

Now everybody is counting on you, not just me. I know that's a heavy weight. But also what a magnificent position to find yourself in, where the whole country is counting on you to change it, for the better. Those moments don't come around very often....
he might as well be talking to me, about the stress and the opportunity of working for Wikimedia.

"And the work that I did in those communities changed me much more than I changed the communities," Obama says. That is the virtue of doing this work not in pairs, as missionaries do, but alone, as Genly Ai does in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness:

Alone, I cannot change your world. But I can be changed by it. Alone, I must listen, as well as speak. Alone, the relationship I finally make, if I make one, is not impersonal and not only political: it is individual; it is personal, it is both more and less than political. Not We and They; not I and It; but I and Thou.

I also loved his explanation, "And it taught me something about how I handled disappointment, and what it meant to work hard on a common endeavor. And I grew up. I became a man during that process." What a tremendously hopeful conception of masculinity and adulthood, to be say that "I became a man" by growing a disciplined empathy.

And here my thoughts go in too many directions to capture: how contributors get ignored if we aren't The Right Sort, and how we fight back (and David Brooks, surprisingly, captures a useful nuance); you can no longer diss women and get away scot-free in national US politics; maturity, sustainability, and self-soothing; "I am here because of Ashley."

But back to the thank-you speech: let me excerpt the most moving part.

You know, I try to picture myself when I was your age. And I first moved to Chicago at the age of 25, and I had this vague inkling about making a difference. I didn't really know how to do it. I didn't have a structure. And there wasn't a presidential campaign at the time that I could attach myself to. Well, Reagan had just been reelected.


And was incredibly popular. And so I, I came to Chicago knowing that somehow, I wanted to make sure that my life attached itself to helping kids get a great education, or helping people living in, in poverty to get decent jobs and be able to work and have dignity. To make sure that people didn't have to go to the emergency room to get healthcare. And, you know, I ended up being a community organizer out in the South Side of Chicago with some, a group of churches who were willing to hire me. And I didn't know at all what I was doing....

And so when I come here and I look at all of you, what comes to mind is: it's not that you guys actually remind me of myself. It's the fact that you are so much better than I was.

[scattered laughter]

In so many ways! You're, you're smarter and you're better organized. And, you, uh, you're more effective. And so I'm absolutely confident that all of you are gonna do just amazing things in your lives. And you'll be what Bobby Kennedy called the ripples of hope that come out when you throw a stone in a lake. That's gonna be you!

You know, I'm just looking around the room and I'm thinking: wherever you guys end up ... you're just gonna do great things!

And, and that's why even before last night's results, I felt that the work that I had done, um, in running for office, had come full circle.

[Obama's voice chokes with emotion]

Because what you guys have done means that the work that I'm doing is important. And I'm really proud of that. I'm really proud of all of you.

[Obama tears up]

For the first time, I saw famously cool, self-controlled Barack Obama tear up. This is what gets at him, in his bones: empowerment.

I should check in again in another four years, and ask how I'm measuring up.