Category Archives: President Obama

Learning From Lucero: Another Face of the Dream Act

249026_166056856898935_354667876_nIn thirty-some years as an educator, I have never seen a child quite like Lucero Chavez.  My first recollection of her is not just her dark eyes, wide open and ready to learn.  Not just her extraordinary drive– that silent motor that hummed somewhere from deep inside her.  Not just her willingness to push mountains of assignments and projects and papers and essays and school tasks faster than her teachers could assign them. Not just her manners, though she has those in abundance. Not just her excellence.

Instead, my first recollection of Lucero Chavez is of her indescribable grace. I clearly remember, mostly as she got older, that she was a presence, in any room or gathering.  A very quiet presence. Even mysterious.

At Mueller Charter School, we have had thousands of children blessed with many different gifts and talents– some discovered but most still incubating.  The longer they are with us on their journey from kindergarten through middle school, the more we become aware of them: kids that are funny, or athletic, or bright, or troubled, or loud, or musical, or demanding, or engaging. Leaders, followers, drivers, entertainers, statesmen.  Individually, they emerge from their self-imposed shadows on the strength of those unique qualities.  Indeed, the great joy of teaching is watching a young person begin to flower and evolve.  And we have had so many students who were blessed in so many different ways.

But none of those were the gift that set Lucero apart.

It was her grace; an almost-haunting presence that was part intellectual, part spiritual.  Inside any classroom, and in the hundreds of weekly assemblies in which Lucero participated over the years– even gatherings outdoors– I can still see her.  Always as close to the front as she could get, always sitting up straight—not for the sake of perfect posture—but so that she could more efficiently absorb every word that was spoken. No matter how crowded, no matter the climate of the room–wherever you stood or walked or paced, if you were speaking– her eyes were riveted.  Eerily attentive.  As if she were dependent on every syllable and teaching for her very breath—no matter how nonsensical, or vapid, or routine, or insignificant.  As if you and Lucero Chavez, were the only two people in the room.

Lucero Chavez has an extraordinary desire to learn from people and places and events around her.  Her thirst for learning is both palpable and insatiable.

It would be so easy to mistake her devotion to learning as simple compliance, or a young girl’s blind obedience to authority.  But from the moment Lucero Chavez first realized that she had a power within her to literally change the world—somewhere back in her first years at Mueller Charter School—she has been on her own remarkable journey.

In her junior year of high school, while the ever-shifting economy was grinding down so many families across America, it was grinding down Lucero’s family too.  Soon they lost their home and a place in the market.  All the while, in tragic and silent dignity, she endured.  Endured the ambiguity that poverty creates—the uncertainty of the train derailed.  Endured her parents’ pain and the loss of her room and her kitchen table and the hallway lined with her honor student certificates and photos dancing in the ballet folklorico.

But she embraced homelessness with the same dignity and attentiveness that she embraced all her other learning experiences.  She sat up straight, her dark eyes wide open and fixed on going forward, and she continued her journey.

UnknownBy midway through her senior year, she had been accepted to every college and university to which she applied.  Her first choice was Dartmouth.  And because her family was still reeling from homelessness, she would need financial assistance to go so far away.    So like thousands of other high school seniors, she began the process of applying for financial assistance. And in piecing together her life history in response to the many prying questions written to ascertain whether Lucero Chavez was diligent and deserving enough to pursue her dream of attending such a prestigious Ivy League college – she discovered something about herself she never knew.  Something her parents had never told her.  Something potentially more debilitating to a kid than sudden homelessness. Something that in the present light of divisive national politics and racism—would destroy a weaker person and all her dreams.

Lucero discovered she was not an American citizen.

She had been brought to the United States illegally as an infant.  Brought by parents who could look beyond the border walls and see Unknown-1the lights of America and know that that is where they wanted to raise their little girl.  And so they came.  Like your forbearers and mine.  Not for their own gain, but for Lucero.

And she has consistently rewarded her parents and family and teachers and friends– giving back to them through her remarkable academic and personal excellence.

In June of 2013, Lucero Chavez represented the 700 graduating seniors of Hilltop High School as their class valedictorian, and delivered her message of resilience to the world.

It was extraordinary in what she didn’t say.  She didn’t describe her struggles through poverty.  She never once mentioned her acceptance letter from Dartmouth or boast about her extraordinary academic achievements in multiple languages.  She didn’t mention that she opted to attend University of San Diego– partly out of fear that, as a result of her now-public dilemma,  her parents could be deported.  She didn’t rail on our policy makers for their inability to deliver a definitive message or compassionate safeguards through the so-called Dream Act.

Instead, she delivered a hopeful and familiar message that spoke for the common and routine experience of every high school kid in the room: the insecurities of adolescence, the joy of Friday night football and prom, the relative accomplishments of student leadership groups, and of course, the relationships.

Grace.

Beyond that, for Lucero Chavez at least, the future is less certain.

I sat at the edge of my chair and listened.  I hung on every word.  And as she spoke, I could not take my eyes her.  Could not fight back the tears of pride and regret that I was not more of a light for her– this extraordinary young woman grown before our very eyes.

Twelve years ago I wrote the vision statement that defines our school today: “Our Children Will Change the World.”  It was not meant to be a just another cheesy slogan with which to decorate school stationary.  It is our collective vision.  It means that these children– mostly Latino, mostly from high poverty homes where parents sacrificed everything for the education that they never had—these children who are easy to ignore and discount and write off and deport—will have the capacity and opportunity to literally change our world for the better if we position them to do so.  If we provide them with the caring and support.  If we maintain high expectations.  If we provide them with opportunities to fully develop their gifts and their voice.

imageIn the weeks leading up to her Valedictorian speech, Lucero was beset with media outlets requesting interviews and longing to tell her story.  Even CNN.  She is the face of homelessness.  The face of an immigration policy in desperate need of a champion.  And ironically, the face of American excellence.  She is single-handedly changing the world.

And now, after thirty some years in education, and tens of thousands of students– most now grown to adults—my own personal mission is fulfilled.  By none, more remarkable, more courageous, more resilient, more blessed… than Lucero Chavez.

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Filed under bilingual education, California charter schools, children at risk, El Milagro, Fighting for Ms. Rios, gifted children, immigration, President Obama, public education, resiliency, spiritual intelligence, the Dream Act

BULL’S EYE

I don’t know where the bickering has taken the lawmakers on Capital Hill.  I don’t know if we are closer to a bill that begins to slake American’s out-of-control thirst for guns.  But I found this photograph from Education Week to be chilling:

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These are educators in Clifton, Texas at a shooting range. The new professional development.

Does anyone honestly think armed teachers make our school safer?

I’m thinking about  the lockdown we experienced last year when some tweaker off the streets  jumped a fence and entered one of our classrooms with a knife in his hand.  I’m thinking about how many teachers I passed on my way out to confront him in the classroom.  The look in their eye.  The terror. I have no idea how many people might have been hurt if one of those panicked teachers had whipped out a gun (they would keep it locked up, right?)… managed to load it (locked in a safe, un-loaded, right?)… aimed it at the wild-eyed  intruder and commanded him to drop his weapon.  And of course he wouldn’t have complied any more than he complied with me when I offered to escort him off the campus.

So what do naive, common citizens do when they are armed to the teeth and staring down an stranger at their school and the whole episode does not seem to go according to the script from the “School Safety Plan” or the last tv show they watched that made it all look so easy and antiseptic.

What happens when a teacher kills an un-armed visitor who poses no real threat at all?

What happens when a teacher starts spraying bullets through classroom walls into areas where other kids have “ducked and covered”?

What happens when the intruder quits laughing long enough to take her weapon away from her– and now instead of being armed with a pen knife he is armed with that freaking gun?

UnknownThe NRA has figured it out.  They know how Apple Computers benefitted from their partnership with schools (considerably more than schools benefitted!) and how the endless cycle of technology upgrades has affected their stock market fortunes. They see thousands of schools, millions of educators, and an endless stream of future customers sitting in desks learning about the Second Amendment of the Constitution. They see momentum building off of the Sandy Hook tragedy, and they want to ride it all the way to Wall Street. It’s a bull market.

They see pictures of entire school districts teambuilding out on the firing range. Target practice for God and country;  improving public education in the bargain.

Not me.  I still see that terrified look in our student’s faces as they ran out of that classroom, fleeing for their lives.  And the relief when it ended so quietly and peacefully.  No one hurt.

Nothing good will come from more guns in places where they don’t belong.  Just more red dots on the HP map depicting the number of gun deaths since Sandy Hook:

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Filed under children at risk, Common Core State Standards, El Milagro, Fighting for Ms. Rios, gun violence, innovation and change, President Obama, public education, teaching, technology in schools, Uncategorized

A POEM FOR BARACK OBAMA UPON THE INAUGURATION OF AMERICA, PART II


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I have a thousand favorite poets so when I cite Maya Angelou it’s not just because everyone knows and loves her work.  It’s because I know and love her work.  I was mesmerized by her reading of  “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993:

“Here on the pulse of this new day– you may have the grace to look up and out and into your sister’s eyes, into your brother’s face, your country, and say simply, very simply, with hope… Good morning.”

Unknown-3On Monday, Richard Blanco becomes the fifth poet to contribute to our Inaugural history when he offers a poem for the nation and the President’s second term.  He will follow some towering shadows cast by Dr. Angelou and Robert Frost.  As a young Latino immigrant, his experience growing up in America will not doubt be reflected in his work.

But I decided you don’t have to be formally invited to Open Mic Day on the Capital steps to contribute to the body of Inauguration poetry.  When I wrote my poem for President Obama on the occasion of his first Inauguration, I was moved by the profound historic significance of  his election.  It wasn’t chosen for the big event but I posted it here anyway and it has gotten thousands of hits over the past four years.  Through the political battles, arguments, threats, criticisms, wars, animosity and divisions… I still have faith in America and our President.

So I am reposting A Poem for Barack Obama Upon the Inauguration of America, with the same hope of national unity that Richard Blanco and Maya Angelou and so many other poets envision for our country.

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“I AM HOPE”

A POEM UPON THE INAUGURATION OF AMERICA
January 20, 2009 and January 21, 2013
Written for Barack Obama,  the 44th and 45th President of the United States
By Kevin W. Riley

Hope.

I  am.

Hope has, even for America’s moment,
Brought more than this moment of redemption.

Hope.
Though I am shackled and thrown upon the swollen deck,
Seaborne and riding the stench of slavery to some new world- lost to life.

Hope. Though I am asleep in Lincoln’s apocalypse.
I am Gettysburg and Manassas and Shiloh.
The dead stacked and shoveled into history’s silent pocket.
In the atrocities a war wrought, even the birds were lost for song;
their throats clutched
In witness of humans who could be so calloused and so cruel.
All in the name of Freedom.

Hope.
I am innocence: Emmit Till and Little Linda Brown
and Addie Mae Collins and her three young friends.

Hope.
I am the blessed martyrs. I am Medgar Evers.
I trust Malcom X with my fury.
I marched from Selma to a Birmingham Jail.
I ripped away the judge’s hood that silenced Bobby Seale
and enjoined the Freedom Riders to endure the flames at Anniston.
I heard the chilling voice of Bull Connor and the sting of riot dogs.
The fire hose.
I saw school buses ignite Roxbury and trigger decades of white flight.
And still I stand.

Hope…
I am the preacher-prophet who foretold that we would reside one day
in a promised land.
He must be with us now.
Though the years have kept his visage young…
His eternal voice is crisp as fire
As he sings from the mountain top.
This morning I heard the sky rejoice-
like the deafening wail of 10,000 hurricanes.

I am Lazarus.
I have redeemed the blood of a beloved brother, gone 40 years.
(Bobby’s picture is still among a shrine of holy cards
in a little house in San Antonio
Where Abuelita says her morning rosary
To Cesar Chavez and a wall of popes whose names she cannot pronounce).

I am JFK for whom Ireland still weeps.

I am redemption for centuries of sorrow;
For a word so foul it sticks in civil throats like drying cactus–
Thistle and rust, decapacitating…
A poison elixir that not all our years combined can exorcise.

I am first Hope. Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Mashall.
I am the first black pilot, the first black principal,
the first black business owner, the first pioneer.
I am first to serve, first to play, first in science,
and first to sail deep into space.
And yet I am last.

I am Hope.
I ride a mighty wave.
I stand on shouldered giants, most for whom history has not reserved a name.
I am beneficiary of the wishes and the words and the blood of legions.

I rise by the toil of Chisholm and Jordon;
on the scaffold stairs built by Jackson and Charles Houston
and Andrew Young.

I am
Hope– tempered, with no guarantee.
But if ever He loved a people
Surely now He has heard our prayers…
Whispered through days and years and generations–
Through all America’s time
To let us be who we must be;
To even once know what it means to be ONE nation.

Alas…
I am only Hope.
My arms are thin.
I speak as if all of God’s angels have somehow filled my lungs
with righteous air.
I am your mouth. His voice.
Our hands–
That the promise of humankind might at last be realized.

But I cannot be who YOU will not be…

So now my name is nailed above Katrina’s door,
Above the Wall Street debacle and the house of cards.
My name is nailed to Iraq and Jerusalem, to all ancient Persia–
And to the suffering of Darfur.

And as I go, so go a hundred nations.

Freedom shines,
A loud bell tolls the moment.
We are astride a wondrous day.
History will remember us as giants…
Or it will not.

Redemption has a name.
I am Obama. And mine is a holy song.

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Filed under Fighting for Ms. Rios, gun violence, health care, innovation and change, President Obama, public education, resiliency

BLAZED

Delaware and Tennessee were evidently the big winners in the Race to the Top dough.  Delaware, which was ranked No. 1 on the competition’s 500-point grading scale, will win about $100 million, while Tennessee, which came in second, will get something like $500 million.  That’s cool for them.  But I read their plans.  I studied the language.  They talk about:

Expectations, accountability, student achievement, test results, teacher evaluation, teacher quality, academic standards, standardized testing, labor and management and consensus and shared decision making…

Then I wondered…

Wasn’t  Race to the Top money awarded  to encourage school reform?  Real Innovation?  A billion dollars worth of fresh thinking?  Transformation? Transcendent change?

Isn’t it true that if you keep doing the same things over and over again… even if you call it something new… you’ll get the same results?

Tennessee’s Education commissioner, Timothy Webb said:  “We believe that if you take all of the technology out of the classroom, … but you leave the highly effective teacher interacting with students, the students will grow.  All those other things are great to have, but we know without a shadow of a doubt that we have to invest in great teachers.”

I get his point and they are not proposing to remove technology from their classrooms ( at least, I don’t think)… but the premise here is that teachers alone are enough to create extraordinary schools.  We know you can’t have extraordinary schools without them.  But what about a “highly effective teacher interacting with students” and using the tools that our students will actually need when they finally escape the gravitational pull of a K-12 public education system and go into the world to invent a new future?

Or at least try to keep up with the one we have.

Arne Duncan, our Secretary of Education said when awarding Tennessee and Delaware the RTTT  prize money:  “We now have two states that will blaze the path for the future of education reform.”  And I hope they do.

But if you are going to”blaze” a new path you have to first get off of the old path.

For less than the $500 million dollars that President Obama invests in racing to the top in Tennessee… there are schools that will be blazing!

El Milagro.

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Filed under California charter schools, charter schools, El Milagro, innovation and change, President Obama, public education, school reform, standardized testing, technology in schools

STAMPEDE TO THE TOP: A RACE TO RUIN

Several things happened this week that gave me pause:

First I saw on CNN the story about a little fourth grader in Texas who hung himself in the school restroom.  The child psychologists all attributed his death to depression and the economy and the pressure he likely felt as he made his way through school.  But he was nine.  And while depression may be on the rise (like obesity and diabetes and other childhood illnesses) it hardly explains such an extreme response.

I wondered…  what was it about his school that added to his hopelessness?  Or what could have been different for him?  Were his talents and interests nurtured?  Or had he been reduced to a test score and a proficiency level?

Then I started my class at USD on Tuesday.  I am teaching a course on Education Reform.  In an attempt to introduce the students to El Milagro, I shared an I-Photo slide show of our kids over the years.  It captured the spirit of children dancing and singing and celebrating.  Talented.  Diverse.  Exultant.  But there were no pictures from this school year.

So I wondered… what kind of climate have we created for the children of El Milagro lately?  Is it a refuge from the stress of their struggling families? Or have we pushed ourselves too far out on that assessment ledge… and in the name of someone else’s definition of accountability… hung our toes over the brink?

Then I listened to President Obama talk about his vision of education in the State of the Union.  In it he said:

“This year, we have broken through the stalemate between left and right by launching a national competition to improve our schools. The idea here is simple: instead of rewarding failure, we only reward success. Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform – reform that raises student achievement, inspires students to excel in math and science, and turns around failing schools that steal the future of too many young Americans, from rural communities to inner-cities.”

I wondered… isn’t that a frighteningly narrow definition of “school success?”

So then I started reading Yong Zhao’s book entitled  “Catching Up or Leading the Way where he states that China is going the opposite direction as the US right now.  That they value outputs and student achievement for sure, but they value the inputs too.  Zhao urges American educators (of which he is one) to rethink the preoccupation with testing and national standards:

“America is at a crossroads. We have two choices.  We can destroy our strengths in order to catch up with others on test scores, or we can build on our strengths and remain a leader in innovation and creativity.  The current push for more standardization, centralization, high-stakes testing, and test-based accountability is rushing us down the first path.  What will truly keep America strong and Americans prosperous is the other path because it cherishes individual talents, cultivates creativity, celebrates diversity, and inspires curiosity.”

I wondered…What are we doing for our children?  Are we handing them musical instruments to play their hearts out on, inviting them to dance, coaching their teams, encouraging community service, investing in their health, encouraging them to think, inspiring them to invent and innovate, handing them a camera to capture their youthful energy in photographs?  Or are we drilling them on test taking skills?

The Race to the Top may actually be a stampede over the edge of the cliff.

I wondered… what have we learned from that tragedy in Texas?

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Filed under El Milagro, gifted children, innovation and change, President Obama, public education, school reform

CHILDREN GROOMED TO SOW OUR FATHER’S PEACE

greatestMy father was a  member  of the “greatest generation”.  Salt of the earth.  Bright.  Self-educated.  A patriot.  As an officer of the United States Navy he saw action in both World War II and Korea.  He was on the blockade in the Mediterranean when Krushchev’s missile-bearing fleet tested JFK’s courage.  All those brave Americans from Massachusettes and from Camden… and not one of them blinked.  And so Russia was turned back and it was the beginning of the end of the USSR.

My father’s service to his nation was not provided for political purposes or jingoistic calculation.  He served with honor.  I would never want anything that I say or do denigrate his record, or his service.  Or his memory.

However, I was stunned by an article that appeared in several publications this week, including Education Week.

It seems as though the role of our schools is now to prepare our children for the military.

A new report from an organization called “Mission Readiness: Military Leaders for Kids states that the United States “should invest in early education to help bolster the number of young people eventually eligible to serve in the military and protect national-security interests.”

According to their website:

On Thursday, Nov. 5, the generals and admirals of Mission: Readiness, along with US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, released a new report that details the fact that 75% of young Americans are unable to serve their country because they have either failed to graduate high school, engaged in criminal activity, or are physically or mentally unfit.

How do you read that?

Is fitness for the military the new bar by which our children will be measured?

I thought we were preparing them for the best universities on the planet.  I thought we were preparing them to be literate, thinking, caring members of our communities.  I thought we were preparing them to excel with 21st Century skills.  I thought we were preparing them to change the world!

Clearly these goals are compatible with service in the military.  And the veteran officers have rightly pointed to juvenile crime, high school drop-outs, and childhood obesity as conditions that compromise America’s future on every level.  They are advocating that Congress pass a bill to provide more funding for early education- an urgent  need in so many communities.

“Human capital is the success this country is going to need for the 21st century,” said retired Army Maj. Gen. James W. Comstock.

Human capital?  Is that who we are teaching?

I’m sorry.  I work among children and teachers every day.  I watch them struggle and learn and compete and sometimes even cry together.  Those whom an Army general would refer to as “human capital” have names and faces.

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In good conscience, how do I prepare those children for military service;  for interminable war that even our President cannot comprehend; for the ultimate sacrifice that soldiers and sailors are asked to make in shadowy lands… against faceless enemies.

The truth is, the armed forces will continue to draw the best and  the brightest as they always have.  They will attract the likes of Patrick Tillman. And my father.  And all his brothers.  And all my mother’s brothers too.  And my own brothers.  And all those souls for whom we will pause and remember on this coming Veteran’s Day. They will attract them when the cause is right and when they are led by their own sense of duty and patriotism.

Perhaps modern military warfare– 21st century warfare– will one day reach a point where killing other people and depleting the “human capital” of our enemies, is no longer the objective.  When our military is dependent solely on brain power– on technologically sophisticated kids who can solve problems and think critically and creatively to insure our freedom through statesmanship and diplomacy– then turning to our public schools to prepare students  for military service will be an objective worthy of our father’s sacrifice.

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Filed under El Milagro, President Obama, public education

THE LAUREATE

Hope

I woke up to news pulsing through Twitter that President Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Really?  He won it?  He’s not just  “a candidate in the running”… but he actually won the thing?

That’s extraordinary!

Just last week it seemed the White House was licking its wounds because Chicago had been passed up as an Olympic host– when the IOC picked the other high-crime, high-poverty, high-partying city– Rio.  The right wing nuts that used to demand patriotism from every American in support of “their president”– now applauded America’s (and Obama’s) embarrassing failure on the world stage.  This was exactly the kind of stumble that the haters envision when they say “I hope the President fails.”

But now, instead of throwing shoes at an American President in full view of the world,  there is this acknowledgment of his quest for peace.  It is a strange and unexpected exoneration of how the world sees America.  Glenn Beck was just crowing about how the IOC decision was a rejection of the Obama ideal. Now he and Limbaugh have to retrench to spew their venomous, hate speech:” I agree with the Taliban… Obama doesn’t deserve the Nobel Peace Prize,” Limbaugh said.  They had to move quickly to de-legitimize the award– just as they have tried to de-legitimize his election, and his citizenship, and his judgment, and his humanity.  And people listened.

Every day I watch this lunacy– the right wing Republican talking points, the hypocrisy, the power of talk radio loons to influence public opinion, the failure of our elected representatives to get along well enough to actually do something about the crises that they themselves have identified: Health care.  Afghanistan. Nuclear proliferation.  Economic collapse.  Global warming.

In Oslo, Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjørn Jagland said:

Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future. We are not awarding the prize for what may happen in the future, but for what he has done in the previous year. We would hope this will enhance what he is trying to do.

It occurs to me that when President Obama ran on the promise of change (and hope) we underestimated the extent to which change unsettles.  Change scares that crap out of people. It polarizes.

Even the people that voted for change pass through stages of tempered dissatisfaction.  Today, for example,  represents one of the largest demonstrations of gay American activists in recent history, with the Human Rights Campaign and their march on Washington to protest a lack of progress in the Obama agenda for gay rights.

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Change will be there too.  Like a giant chameleon sitting in the trees and turning whatever colors may be reflected in the surrounding landscape. Blending in.  The eye of the beholder. Participants will no doubt list their disappointments: not enough progress on “Don’t ask-don’t tell”, or civil unions, or gay marriage.  And I am with them.  There hasn’t been enough progress.  And if the Prez is listening… let’s throw in our disappointment over the education agenda.  And the slow closure of Guantonomo.  And the fractured withdrawal of troops from Iraq and simultaneous build-up in Afghanistan.  And jobs are still disappearing. Hell, let’s just replay the Saturday Night Live skit in case he hasn’t seen it.

And then, having gotten all that off our chest, let us join in a collective epiphany:  that if you voted for change…  you already got it.  If you voted for hope— the Nobel Laureate embodies it.  If you voted for President Obama– an extraordinary figure in an extraordinary time– hang on tight.  Change promises a long and treacherous road out of a darkness he inherited.  It will be worth the journey.

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Filed under innovation and change, President Obama