Friday, January 20, 2017

In the midst of a new community in the Big Red Barn with Obama

Cornell University's Big Red Barn
In January 2009, I had just started my PhD program at Cornell University. In December 2008, I completed my MPA degree at the University of Dayton and made a winter move to Ithaca, New York. As someone starting an academic program mid-year, I was out of sync with most people. I didn't know others in my program well at that point. Like most of us have experienced some point in our lives, I had a sense of being in the midst of the unknown.

The inauguration of President Obama was a big event. The university had a watch party in the Big Red Barn (BRB), an old carriage house for the university president turned into a graduate student center. It's a great place for various events like the ever-popular T.G.I.F. (Tell Grads It's Friday) with $1 beer and snacks. So, just a few weeks after moving to a new place I was standing in a very crowded BRB watching President Obama be sworn into office for his first term. Many people were emotional. The gravity of the setting and situation spoke to what I recall being a very diverse crowd. What typically was a loud and lively space was celebratory yet solemn that day. I think people realized how significant the moment was for our history and for our future.

I was excited for my own new adventure at Cornell and beyond in the academy, but I was also excited and inspired by the possibility and promise of a democratic life that was/is engaging, meaningful, and inclusive of people from all walks of life and backgrounds. I saw a bit of that diverse America standing in that wonderful gathering place known as the BRB. We would walk out later in our varied directions via snow-worn paths to return to labs, offices, and classrooms. We had a charge and I feel that many people saw themselves as part of something larger that day.

President Obama's inaugural speech acknowledged the many crises we faced at that moment--terror networks, economic catastrophe, rising costs of health care--but he asked us to grow up a bit and choose a better path. In his words:
On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation. But in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.
And what might be more a historical footnote from that day in 2009 is the poem offered by Elizabeth Alexander, entitled Praise Song for the Day. It remains, to me, the most beautiful poem I know. I include it here as people amass in Washington, DC for the inauguration as well as the march to follow the next day. Alexander spoke of possibility and love. We need that more than ever.

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