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Local advocates of social change reflect on Obama's message of change

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 13, 2008 - A history-making president at a historic juncture, President-elect Barack Obama has both symbolized and promised change. His election was possible because of the change the nation has already undergone -- and because of the high expectations of even more change his candidacy promised.

So what do local leaders in civil rights, human rights and cultural diversity think of Obama's election -- and his prospects of accomplishing more change? What do those invested in social change see for Obama's future?

Alderman Charles Quincy Troupe, D-St. Louis, says Obama's election could be transformational. "His election will have some unbelievable and positive consequences for civil rights, women's rights, gay rights and the class issue, too. What he does to the federal courts could make a difference for the next 30 years. What he has done is transcending race. He's showing poor white people and black people that they can work together for a mutual and sure destiny."

Troupe adds that communities now must stoke the fire that Obama has lit even in young blacks. "I saw young black men with their pants slung around their asses, with their dirty drawers showing, standing in line for one to two hours to vote. That said something about what we need to do next, put them in an environment and help them buy into Obama's dreams."

Illinois state Rep. Wyvetter Younge, D-East St. Louis, speak of Obama in almost biblical terms.

"We can expect a lot of good things from him," she says. "He's a man of good character and purpose. He'll implement legislation for the renewal of our economy. What he brings most is hope for jobs, housing and health care. Obama will be a blessing for America."

One strong note of caution came from Norman Seay, a veteran civil rights activist who has seen his share of broken political promises.

"I'm ambivalent," Seay says, "not because I dislike Obama. I voted for him. I think he's extremely intelligent and competent, but when I think of whites in the South particularly who didn't embrace him, it makes me less confident that he'll be able to do all the things he wants to do."

Seay says Obama "reminds me of a young Bill Clay during the Jefferson Bank demonstrations. He even looks a little like the Clay from that period and he sounds a little like him, too, very articulate and able to move people."

Another civil rights supporter, Robert Tabscott of the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Society, says Obama already is transforming America, standing on the shoulders of a range of powerful black leaders who preceded him across America and in St. Louis.

"We have in Obama a man who bears witness to character, decorum, intelligence. But this is when I feel depressed. It's in wondering whether he can change the (the current problems). He has to have a Congress. Obama has strong character. He embodies the Constitution, which doesn't recognize race, religion or gender. He's a transparent America. But can he do it? I find in him so many aspects of the things that I value. For that I say amen."

Another St. Louis leader who thinks Obama can transform race relations is Christine Chadwick of Focus St. Louis.

"What the Obama campaign shows us was how important citizen engagement was," she says. "People from all walks of life began practicing democracy. He mobilized young voters like never before and used the Internet like never before."

She also says his election, and the economic crisis, have brought more people together.

"I think about this very historic moment and hopefully that it will mobilize all of us to build friendships across races. We have a lot to do in terms of race relations. But it's a historic moment, a new day, an amazing opportunity."

Some local African-American political leaders, while expecting a renewed committment to cities, nevertheless urge patience and realism.

"This is something we've never experienced before," says St. Louis Alderwoman Kacie Starr Triplett, D-6th Ward, "and it's unfair for us to place all the burden on him. I know there will be policy changes. How they will play out, we don't know. We're going to have to be patient."

St. Louis Aldermanic Board President Lewis Reed expressed similar uncertainty about the level of change, saying Obama might help to bridge misunderstanding between blacks and whites and improve race relations, "but I don't know how profound that will be." He does think Obama's rise to the White House bodes well for cities, a belief also shared by License Collector Michael McMillan.

"In the past eight years, we've not had an urban agenda," McMilian says. "Obama's community work in Chicago and all his statements regarding American cities mean we'll have programs to get things done in terms of housing, provide tax breaks and economic stimulus programs and I believe he will do his best to make health care universal. I think in the first year he will get us out of Iraq, which, if nothing else, could provide billions of dollars that could be put into domestic programs."

St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green says she has observed Obama's style and gained insight from it. "He kept his composure, stayed away from catch phrases and gamesmanship and I think this is a sign of how he will govern. I think he'll stick with the fundamentals and help rebuild the country and make America strong."

Like McMillian, she thinks Obama's election is a plus for cities because of his experience as a community organizer. "It gives him an understanding when a city calls him about an issue and he can hear it louder and clearer than any other president because he's been in the thick of it, has been there."

For some human rights leaders, it's still too early to uncork the champagne. It's not that Bill Ramsey of the Human Rights Action Service and some other human rights activists doubt Obama's commitment; rather they worry that Obama has surrounded himself with people, such as Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who might convince the new president to abandon some campaign promises.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," Ramsey says. "But there are things that have caused me to wonder right off, to have some skepticism about how thoroughly he's going to implement some of his campaign promises," such as closing Guantanamo prison and ending the war in Iraq.

St. Louis' Jamala Rogers, head of Organization for Black Struggle, says it's essential for activists to raise their voices now instead of later. People should protest loudly if federal policies focus solely on bailing out corporations but not the working class. Rogers is not against helping Wall Street so long as the needy gets relief, too. She also says Obama and others must also broaden the definition of human rights by paying attention to the housing, health and employment needs of ordinary citizens.

"Housing is a human right," she says. "Employment at a livable wage is a human right, so is health care."

Sounds like the president-elect has a full plate -- but also plenty of people who hope to help him along.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.