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Letter to Obama: We Must Not Forget the Poor

New America Media, Commentary, Bridgett Ortega Posted: Nov 07, 2008

Editor's Note: An African-American lawyer and educator who greeted the election of Barack Obama with celebration found that a class of young black and Latino students from San Francisco's poorest neighborhoods greeted her enthusiasm with cynicism. After a campaign that was dominated by promises to rescue a floundering middle class the class she had fought her own way into their insistence that "the president is not down with us" reminded her of the need to include the poor and the disenfranchised in the post-election dialogue. Bridgett Ortega is a lawyer, educator, advocate and grandmother of ten. She is the principal consultant for Building Better Bridges Consulting.

Dear President-elect Obama:

The foregoing words leave me in a state of wonder and awe even as I type them. Tingly yet frightened. Like a child the night before Christmas, wondering whether Santa might get stuck in the chimney.

For me, Nov. 4, 2008 was the dawn of a new day. I went to sleep with a very real sense that the world somehow had transformed itself into a safer and more humane place. It must be nice for you and Michelle to hear echoed throughout the country: For the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country, because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.

The breadcrumbs scattered along the path of my life are in the valleys of prison hallways where I visited my mom behind bars, a backyard pool in Tennessee that was "contaminated" because of my blackness, and the private schools where I washed thousands of dishes and ironed thousands of sheets to earn tuition money.

My crumbs are also scattered along the mountains of the institutions of higher education I attended, military bases on which I proudly served and on land that is not subject to foreclosure. Now those crumbs lead me back to an America I am proud to claim as home.

But this letter is not about me. Today, I write for those without bread, for without bread there are no crumbs to scatter. In this post-election glow, we must not forget the poor.

Basking in that glow myself, I jumped into my "green" car and headed towards a small alternative school for youth who have had a brush with the law in San Francisco. Excited, I grabbed the bottles of sparkling cider and plastic champagne glasses I'd bought to toast our hard fought victory with a group of students six other attorneys and I have been trying desperately to engage on the subject of justice.

My bubble was immediately busted as the students expressed sentiments such as, "I would have voted for McCain, they just gonna kill a brother" and "The president is not down with us." The saddest refrain from these young African-American and Latino men was, "He ain't one of us. He don't know us."

After a few ineffective and inadequate ramblings by me and other adults in the room about the historical significance of this moment, we toasted to "change" and "hope." As I drove away pondering the fragility of hope and the power of learned hopelessness, my joy turned to depression.

After a campaign that was dominated by promises to rescue a floundering middle class the class I had fought my way into I wondered when would the word "poor" be spoken aloud. When would the young people I had just left behind me be brought into the national conversation, the communal celebration? What would it take for them to feel the hope that drove so many of us into the streets in celebration the night before?

As I ponder the words of your acceptance speech -- it takes all of us working together to tackle this country's problems -- I realize that one of the most important things in these young people's lives is those of us who show up consistently in their world as an expression of love. You and I and all who love them are building a bridge to somewhere. I just pray they live long enough to cross it.

They may not possess the vocabulary to express the complexities of hope mixed with deep alienation, but I do believe that they are walking a little bit prouder today because of the history you just made. They may pretend not to notice, or may be just too afraid to dare dream of the possibilities, but we will continue to toast those possibilities.

Since you are probably getting all kinds of advice on what your priorities should be, who to select, and how you should govern, let me throw my two cents in.

Don't forget about the poor. Not just the financially poor, but those whose spirits are bankrupted because they just cannot see a way out the incarcerated parent and her children, the drug addict, the homeless, the drop-out, and those who reside in prison, jails and juvenile detention facilities all over this country.

Everything and everyone associated with power, and now especially you, seems so distant from their reality. It is so easy for them to be swept under the carpet.

As for my young hopeless students, when you get a moment, they could really benefit from some kind of acknowledgment from you. A note, letter, or even a visit if you are ever in the area, would let them know that you do see them, that you are down with them and that they are not forgotten.

They need a break from death and despair. Most of them come from the marginalized community of Bayview-Hunters Point, which contains nearly one-third of San Francisco's toxic waste sites and is plagued with youth-on-youth, black-on-black crime, prostitution, gang and drug activity as well as a high murder rate. Every week that we come to work here, some new tragedy has beset their neighborhoods.

President-elect Obama, I close with a sincere thank you for instilling and renewing hope for so many. Even my three-year-old granddaughter called from Georgia to remind me to vote for you. Thank you and God bless you!


Bridgett E. Ortega, M.A., J.D.
Principal Center Collaborative School
San Francisco, Calif.

Related Articles:

Dwindling Hope, Irrelevant Election: Young People Get Their Cynicism Back

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