Wednesday, November 5, 2008

we - the people - won.

There are a lot of pundits speculating on the significance of the Obama win for African-Americans and for race relations in the USA. I think they’re missing the larger point.

What’s historic about this election is not just the colour of President Obama’s skin, but the scope of his values and the focus-on-the-positive approach he took to his campaign. A new paradigm has been struck.

When you consider the West’s strongest archetypes, and even heroes from the modern age, rarely does a person of principle win out over an evil-doer with dirty tricks. The Torah tells us that the Israelites were chosen to be a light unto the world. To be a living embodiment of God’s teachings. But they were enslaved, spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness, and then their leader was denied entrance to the Promised Land.

Jesus taught his disciples to turn the other cheek. To embrace generosity over greed. And that the greatest of the commandments is to love, love, love. He was betrayed by one of his inner circle, nailed to a piece of wood, and hung out in public until he died.

Joan of Arc led France to victory in a series of battles against England and its expansionist ambitions. She was captured, tried by an ecclesiastical court, and burned at the stake at 19.

Ghandi fought tyranny, colonization, class, race, and religious persecution through a disciplined campaign of non-violence and said the search for God is the same as the search for truth. He was assassinated by a fellow-Hindu. Martin Luther King was assassinated for his racial and economic equality campaigning. And just as Malcolm X began calling for a more inclusive approach to the Nation of Islam’s civil rights movement, he, too, was murdered by one his own.

And so the idea of a political candidate who dismisses smears and negative attacks from his opponents by invoking Jay Z’s “brush your shoulder off” shouldn't have inspired too much hope. Leading a two-year campaign based on the politics of inclusion, a resolve to advance ideas over attacks, We over They - well, given our cultural references and our history, a campaign like that shouldn't really have worked.

Hillary Clinton was not alone in her assessment that, generally speaking, when you can’t beat 'em, you’ll probably have to join 'em.

Many of us had succumbed to the idea that the path to governance requires a certain collusion with special-interests funders, negative campaigners, and the support of those media-recognized leaders from the most powerful demographic groups who have crowned US presidents in the past.

Obama’s two-year assertion that individual citizens, anonymous voters, and everyday residents could fund, mobilize, and transform the actual political process was an unlikely strategy in light of the examples from our past.

And so the historic significance I’m taking from this election is not just that a majority of Americans voted for a black man.

It’s that after decades of insiders – women’s groups, labour leaders, social justice lobbies, sitting politicians, the private sector, and more – telling us that we wouldn't be able to achieve political power unless we learned to play like the Big Boys, President Obama has come along to tell us that:

Yes We Can.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

what was good for the goose isn't really good for the gander

I hear that The New Yorker intended this week's cover to be satire. A way to mock those middle Americans who think of the Obamas as radicals who will steal the White House out from under us all, burning the flag, sympathising with Osama, and raising their fists in revolutionary glee.

The reason this cartoon doesn't achieve a sense of satire is that it seems more like it's supposed to be an inside joke. The kind of illustration you might find in a radically leftist student newspaper, where the editors are secretly thrilled at the idea of some black power revolutionaries taking over and dominating the D.C. elite. The same kind of editors who might celebrate a picture of Che, for example, his profile on their tee-shirts and on posters in their dorms.

When you're a member of an immigrant or visible minority group, and you've attended all the best schools, finished at the top of your class, worked with the best, and then offer a nuanced and principled critique of the status quo, it's surely a shock to the system to not be treated as a public intellectual, but lampooned as a guerrilla revolutionary instead.

I frowned for Hillary when the tasteless merchandising came out about her, and I wince at this week's New Yorker cover for its equally painful attempt at commercial humour. It seems that the kind of mockery that worked fine when candidates were white, male, and sired by the American-born doesn't work as well now that the political landscape is broadening.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

rainbows & butterflies

Last weekend I went to Philadelphia with one of my friends from high school and we spent two days volunteering on the Obama campaign. I can’t tell you how exhilarating it was to know that I was finally putting my money where my mouth is and doing something on-the-ground to help this man win.

We arrived at the Philly HQ just in time for a rousing speech by Congressman Elijah Cummings from Maryland. He talked about the impact and inspiration of Barack Obama’s vision. And then he said it was not enough to be inspired – you had to get out and do something to support the campaign. And then, it’s not enough to support one person’s presidential bid – you have to get out and do something to improve your own life. I can’t lie – both B and I had tears in our eyes.

The Philly HQ saw us arrive: two preppy, but decidedly coloured girls, and promptly asked if we’d be interested in canvassing in North Philly, in the projects. Dude, I was so down.

We went with three others – stopping first for espressos – then rolling in in a BMW SUV driven by a smooth-toned, elegant, older black man, and accompanied by a late 30s/early 40s female white lawyer from NY and a 30-something Hispanic woman, also from NY, who had also done canvassing work in Rhode Island. There was a journalist from Vanity Fair in the elevator with us doing a story on New Yorkers coming down to help before the Philly primary.

The response to our door-knocking fantastic. One group of idlers outside a boarded up house told me and B that we had “a lot of heart coming up to the hood.” They said we “must be getting paid a lot to go door to door in the projects.”

That’s when I told them that we were doing it for free – we believe in Obama so much that we would drive down, three of us from NY and one from Canada, to help the man win.

One woman wanted to know if felons could vote in the primary. Yes you can! One teenager shouted to her mom that some workers from the “black man’s campaign” were there to register her to vote. One young under-ten year old girl saw B and me coming up the drive and said to her friends: “they look so pretty”.

I don’t think it’s that we were particularly hot. I think we just struck an interesting picture – two yuppie women of colour, holding campaign signs, standing talking to groups of men over loud base and hip hop, meeting up with colleagues coming out of the odd crack house or two…and smiling radiantly like we’d never been more happy to get out to work.

For that alone I’m glad I got out on the campaign trail last weekend. I’d forgotten what it’s like to feel ecstatic about a project. And I’d forgotten how infectious and powerful that feeling can be. So even if some of the people we registered don’t get out to the primary to vote; even if some residents fail to notice the Obama signs in the front windows of their neighbours’ homes – there are still young girls, ex-cons, and up-and-coming strivers who now know that there’s a candidate for president that will send campaign workers to their hood.

There’s a candidate out there who is so inspiring that volunteers feel it’s worth driving across states and countries to stump for. There’s a candidate out there who speaks to the urban elite and the disenfranchised both.

And we can’t wait for him to do something positive for the country as a whole.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

shameless self promotion

Check out this site for insights on health policy trends, written by me and my colleagues around the globe.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

on choirs and leads

It's about four years ago now that I first got turned back on to politics. I mean, I hadn't ever stopped following politics, or volunteering on campaigns, or reading political theory. But it's four years ago now that I finally set eyes on an individual who I thought had that spark. That drive. That vision to make politics meaningful again.

I had just moved from Vancouver after four and a half years there. I had just turned 30. I had just come back from a four day stop over in Nairobi and a safari around Tanzania, then a road trip round the south island of New Zealand with a friend I'd made in the country before.

And now I was firmly stationed in the nation's capital, ensconced in a grey cubicle, settled into government, ready to do some good.


My mom called from Vancouver. In recent years she's become a bit of a CNN junkie. She called to ask if I'd seen the Democratic National Convention the night before. I hadn't.

"They had a black guy, Cher. A black guy gave the speech! You should have heard him - he was incredible. Just incredible!"

I was skeptical. My politics and my mom's politics don't always mesh. And so, with few expectations, I found a video clip of the DNC keynote address online.

And as I watched it, I cried.

My boss found me there. In my suit, in my cubicle, hunched close to the monitor, with my headphones on. Crying as Barack Obama spoke.

"I shouldn't be in this job," she started. "I think, maybe, you should be doing something...more."

And watching him speak, I wanted to do something more.

What got me about his speech that night was that he spoke my language - me, a drifter who's lived in seven cities now since 1991. Me, who's black, but grew up in a largely white and Asian city, with little black community. Me, who'd attended a decidedly exclusive, WASPY, upper class, all-girls' school. Me, who's a bookworm and a club kid, both at the same time. Me, who's drawn to Jews and gays, both communities, in equal parts.

Somehow, this Obama guy, he spoke to all of that.

In the advocacy world, we place a premium on coalition-building. On stakeholder outreach and the development of support from non-traditional groups. After all, how much more impactful is it to have a broad coalition of voices making your ask, than to have your CEO pleading his case alone?

But because we lobbyists know this intuitively, it's easy to dismiss coalition-building as a mere tactic, and not as a fundamental root of a client's entire campaign. Maybe they can't afford to pay us to do stakeholder outreach. Maybe we know someone who knows someone who can help change a law, introduce new regulations, allocate funds in the next budget. And so we don't need a coalition to secure the client's ask.

But then, that's the difference between a Pied Piper and a Miles Davis, no?

Sure, there's a huge crowd behind the Piper, but Miles now, Miles is transforming the game.

Last night Hillary recounted to South Carolinians that the difference between a politician and a statesman is that the politician looks to the next election, but the statesman looks to the next generation.

Ironically, I think she just summed up the difference between herself and Barack.

Hillary Clinton is like that lobbyist-for-hire, constructing the most strategic, expedient, accessible (but credible) coalition of supporters available, because they are one arrow in the range of arsenal needed to win the immediate political goal.

But Barack Obama campaigns like a true-believer. Cultivating a coalition from the grassroots is his political goal.

Which is why he'll stand at Martin Luther King's old pulpit in Atlanta and call on the black community to be more supportive of gays and lesbians and not tolerate those who use anti-Semitism as a means to divide.

It's why he calls for an expansion in the number of soldiers and Marines, but also of Foreign Service officers, and suggests that language training is as important as weapons training if diplomacy is to precede military action in Iran.

It's why he places equal emphasis on the contributions of Asian-Americans and Native Americans, and doesn't just fall back on the usual rhetoric of blacks vs. whites.

Because he's trying to lead an America in which there's a setting for everyone at the table.

Hillary's just trying to lead. You get the feeling she'll worry about the guest list once she's confirmed that the table's hers.

And so, in our own everyday lives, what can we do to keep in touch with the original sparks that moved us to pursue our current goals? How can we avoid getting lost in the tactical manoeuvres required to bring us to those goals?

How can we make sure that the vision of the destination to which we aspire doesn't start to eclipse our view of where (or on whom) we're treading as we head towards our goals?

And if we get to the end line, and we find that there's nobody with us there, how can we develop the courage to go back and start all over again, to ensure that this time, we don't miss the point?

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

tipping points, influencers, leaders of the pack

A middle-aged aquaintance came back from vacation Monday and said the best thing about her vacation had been the chance to hang out with her 20 year old daughter. She said that at that age, the only way to know what was happening in your daughter's life was to spend time with her and hear accidental confessions throughout the day.

She said she was constantly surprised to hear her daughter had organised entire evening plans while they were watching tv - just by texting, IM-ing, and sending emails to friends.

And it occurred to me - my god, there is a generation gap caused by technology. And so I wondered what other trends boomers might be missing.

It's just after 10:30pm right now and Hillary Clinton is leading Obama by about 6,000 votes in New Hampshire. The Associated Press has called the vote in favour of Clinton, and we're waiting now to hear the call from CNN.

Again there's a blow by blow analysis underway of the woman vote and the youth vote, and what it all means for the two front runners.

But something strange - in reference to youth today, I heard one pundit refer to voters in their that still considered young?

My question now is how many pundits are baby boomers and how big is the gap between them and us? When the Boomers were in their 30s, they had kids who were school aged. Gen X'ers and Gen Y'ers are waiting longer to get married and have kids. We communicate more widely, but more silently. And so, is it possible the Boomers still think of us as seen but not heard?

Certainly when it comes to Iowa and New Hampshire, the impact of the 35 and under vote seems to have taken the media by surprise.

If that's the case, then I wonder what other trends and influencers we might be missing if we're relying on media pundits to be our guides?

A colleague drew my attention today to the following book, which was written by the head of one of our sister companies in the States: Microtrends, by Mark Penn.

The book's described by Bill Clinton and Bill Gates as:

"The ideas in his book will help you see the world in a new way." -Bill Clinton

"Mark Penn has a keen mind and a fascinating sense of what makes America tick, and you see it on every page of Microtrends." -Bill Gates

And the publisher summarises its approach as:

In 1982, readers discovered Megatrends. In 2000, The Tipping Point entered the lexicon. Now, in Microtrends, one of the most respected and sought-after analysts in the world articulates a new way of understanding how we live. Mark Penn, the man who identified "Soccer Moms" as a crucial constituency in President Clinton''s 1996 reelection campaign, is known for his ability to detect relatively small patterns of behavior in our culture-microtrends that are wielding great influence on business, politics, and our personal lives. Only one percent of the public, or three million people, is enough to launch a business or social movement.

Relying on some of the best data available, Penn identifies more than 70 microtrends in religion, leisure, politics, and family life that are changing the way we live. Among them: People are retiring but continuing to work. Teens are turning to knitting. Geeks are becoming the most sociable people around. Women are driving technology. Dads are older than ever and spending more time with their kids than in the past.

You have to look at and interpret data to know what's going on, and that conventional wisdom is almost always wrong and outdated. The nation is no longer a melting pot. We are a collection of communities with many individual tastes and lifestyles. Those who recognize these emerging groups will prosper. Penn shows readers how to identify the microtrends that can transform a business enterprise, tip an election, spark a movement, or change your life. In today's world, small groups can have the biggest impact.


Only one percent of the population is needed to start a movement?

If my aquaintance is any indication - or the media who questioned whether America could be ready for a black Commander in Chief - the Boomers may well be surprised in the not so distant future by a "silent" Gen X and Y coup.

Friday, January 4, 2008

am i smug?

Well, I hate to say I told you so, but....I never doubted Obama's broad-based support. Am watching CNN, where they are still talking about how many women, how many young people, and how many black people voted for Obama in the Iowa caucuses.


Primaries are about getting out the vote. For months now, Obama has been reporting that he doesn't accept funding from PACs or lobby groups. Which means that he was raising roughly the same amount of money as Clinton - but from a larger group of people.

Still the pundits focused on gender, age and race. Keep your eye on the ball people - he had more individuals supporting him than Clinton. Less rich maybe, than her supporters, but more of them.

Wolf is calling the win dramatic. How can having more supporters pre-vote, direct experience as a community organiser (and therefore of getting people off the couch and into the street/voting booth) possibly result in a dramatic win?

Only dramatic if you're not paying attention because you don't think a 40-something black man could possibly win.

But wait - isn't that what they said about a 40-something Catholic called Kennedy?