Change in Me

Jalena Keane Lee, 2nd Place
8th Grade

“Aren’t you exited for the dance tonight?” “I can’t go. My mom is kidnapping me to Reno, for the last weekend to register voters.”

My 80 year-old grandmother, cousin, mom and I embarked on a six-hour journey. During the drive, I daydreamed about the dance and what I would be missing that night. When we arrived at the Obama Nevada Headquarters, we were bombarded by a packed parking lot, a huge grey warehouse with a line of people waiting to sign in and receive canvassing packets. The smell of coffee and doughnuts filled the air.

After we signed in, we found seats and waited for the presentation. As I sat there boredom enveloped me. Looking around I saw peace posters and bicycles hanging from the walls, when suddenly I noticed hundreds of people had come into the room, larger than the 300 anticipated. Streaming into the warehouse were 1,000 eager campaign volunteers of all ages filled with excitement.

Standing in front of a large screen, the coordinator, a 26-year-old Caucasian man, with wire-rimmed glasses, and bushy facial hair, introduced himself, described the day and issued a challenge: Register 1,000 voters today – win Nevada for Obama, and he would shave off all his facial hair. People laughed and applauded.

We made arrangements for Grandma to stay at the headquarters to avoid all the walking and we set out to canvass. As we left, I looked back to see my grandmother standing in the middle of the crowd looking forlorn. She wanted to go with us and didn’t feel like she would be of any use at the headquarters.

Off we went into unknown neighborhoods, at first it was intimidating to knock on stranger’s doors, but I got the hang of it. House after house, we were greeted by Caucasian families, very different from my multicultural upbringing in Berkeley. It felt good to know that perhaps my mom and I were breaking the shy Asian stereotype for those people. We knocked on hundreds of doors, registered two new voters, and arrived back at the headquarters, exhausted.

During the time that we were gone, my Grandmother had organized a potluck for the 1,000 volunteers and everyone was asking her for directions. Our large family throws gatherings at least once a month so everyone knows how to cook, prepare food, prep a space, and organize a huge party. When the coordinator was making his final speech he singled out my Grandma to thank her. Then the staff asked us if we could bring her back every weekend!

The purpose of the event was to create community, let the volunteers have some fun and share inspirational and funny stories. One story stood out to me. The coordinator said, “Come share your story if this is the first time you’ve been involved in a political campaign.” Most people were expecting a teen, but instead a 50-year-old father went on the stage and said, “I never strongly believed in politics, but when I saw how much Obama inspired my son, I knew who I would be voting for. My son is the one who arranged this whole trip, and signed us both up. I am so proud of him, and when I remember back to when I was his age, I wish that I could be as driven and responsible as he is.” Every word conveyed how much he loved and admired his son. After he left the stage, the two embraced in a warm hug, and the dad whispered into his son’s ear “I hope I didn’t embarrass you up there” and the son responded with tears in his eyes “You did great Dad.”

During the party there were a number of people sitting in the back room, typing up all the data that we had collected that day. Towards the end of the event the coordinator announced that not only had we matched the number of register voters, we topped it. All of us together had registered 1,200 people so the coordinator would be shaving. There were cheers, hugs and laughter all around.

This was the turning point in my trip; this was the change in me. I realized what a difference I was making and how important it was for me to be there. I registered two voters, I watched my Grandma, at 80 still ready to change the world, and I experienced a fantastic party filled with hope. I saw how much of a difference I could make. My sense of self and priorities had grown from my small school, to the broader world. By opening my mind I had a good time, and learned that I can change how I feel, just by letting go of judgment and experiencing the moment.