1. Barack Obama: Electing Yourself "President Citizen"
On November 8, 2016, I wrote a letter. I was on a red eye from Nairobi, Kenya to Frankfurt, Germany just after midnight. I'm a horrible flight sleeper, so, as you could imagine, the impending results of the U.S. election didn't help. I tried to drown out the restlessness by listening to a podcast. I turned on an episode of one of my favorites, 99% Invisible.
The episode: "Ten Letters for the President".
The premise: Meet the White House Office of Presidential Correspondence. Didn't know there was a White House Office of Presidential Correspondence? There is one and they choose ten letters a day to go directly to the President.
I did know there was a White House Office of Presidential Correspondence. In fact, four years prior, I volunteered there while a student, like a number of GW students did. In fact, coincidentally, my friend Ryan and I were discussing our respective times volunteering at the office just a day prior to the November 7 publication of the episode.
This episode and happenstance drew me in and I thought to myself, why not? In the dimly lit Lufthansa cabin, as others were fast asleep, I whipped open my computer. In the glow of its backlight, I wrote a letter to the President.
Here's that letter (or at least the lone surviving draft of it I found).
November 8, 2016
Dear President Obama,
I'm on a flight from Kenya to Washington, D.C. with a layover in Frankfurt, Germany. It's Election Day and I honestly want to cry. Because of you, as a 24 year old black man in America, I can. Also, because of you, I don't have to.
The winner of this election isn't certain yet. It's still early. With that said, borrowing from Anne Frank coincidentally (as we get ready to fly into Germany), I have always believed that people are good at heart. In this election cycle, as you've recognized, we've seen some ugly behavior from people: racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, classism, etc... And people are seemingly buying into those things. That's where the tears would come from, because I know we can do better. I feel comfortable saying that because I've seen you (and the world has seen you), as a fellow black man in America, embracing a loving, authentic vulnerability. In Kenya, where I just visited for the first time, men don't often show vulnerability in the same way (as I'm sure you know). Today, I'm all the more appreciative of the freedom to live in my emotions.
I will not cry, because, through you (and especially through the US CTO and civic hacking), I'll never forget the words you said at SXSW this year: "The most important office in a democracy is the office of citizen". We (and I) have the power to change the world for the better, regardless of our commander-in-chief (no offense, much love!). Through my minor fear of the potential President, I remind my friends and family that, regardless, we don't need to hang our hat on the President. I'm not as afraid as I could be, because I know we can use this as motivation to take on civic hacking challenges. I sincerely believe that we, the people, can overcome and thrive. I've listened to Megan Smith say it and I've listened to you say it. I took your words to heart and will continue to, regardless of the outcome of the election. Changing the world for the better is a MASSIVE task... and that's why we need to work together to do it.
As a young, black man (often the only one in an organization or in a room), I thank you for changing our culture, for giving us the opportunity to show who we truly are and for showing that we have the power to create our own opportunity in the face of our challenges. If anything else, I'm hoping and praying that, somehow, you can read this and know that, because of you, there's a bright light at the end of the tunnel. We will survive and we will thrive and I'm at peace with that.
I sent in the final letter on that flight and closed my eyes. I was in the Frankfurt airport when I found out the result to the election. On November 30, I received a reply, albeit a stock reply. Nevertheless, the power of the words resonated. Here's a screenshot of that letter.
In the spirit of this letter, if there's one quote that resonates with me as we begin 2017 and as I begin this journey of 180º of Impact, it is a quote from the President from earlier in the year. It's an important reminder for us all of something I saw in my interactions in 2016 and far before: we've got the power! I'm excited to explore that reality, with you and 180 change makers, throughout 2017.
"The most important office in a democracy is the office of citizen." Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States.