Over thirty years ago, there was a party at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California. It was a big party, and it left quite a mess.
When the partygoers awoke the next morning, they beheld the remains of their debauchery: furniture overturned, clothes strewn about, food crushed into the carpet.
But they weren’t worried. It wasn’t their problem. The building had a cleaning woman who would get rid of the evidence. They laughed and laughed when they thought of the job she had ahead of her.
This vulgar display didn’t sit well with one girl. “You think that’s funny?” she said. “That could have been my grandmother, you know. She had to clean up behind people for most of her life.”
Most of the students probably laughed her off, but there was one young man in the group who never forgot that moment.
The young man started paying attention to the people around him. He began to notice that the cleaning woman wasn’t alone. There were millions of Americans just like her. And he was ashamed by the way he and his classmates had treated her.
Over the next fifteen years, he became a changed man, and he wrote a book about his journey.
“All too rarely do I hear people asking just what it is that we’ve done to make so many children’s hearts so hard,” he wrote, “or what collectively we might do to right their moral compass — what values we must live by. Instead I see us doing what we’ve always done — pretending that these children are somehow not our own.”
The man — no longer a young man — began speaking to communities like the one he grew up in. He taught people how to work together to solve their problems.
“In America,” he said, “we have this strong bias toward individual action. You know, we idolize the John Wayne hero who comes in to correct things with both guns blazing. But individual actions, individual dreams, are not sufficient. We must unite in collective action, build collective institutions and organizations.”
When he gave these speeches, he was standing inside the very institutions he was referring to: churches, homes, YMCAs, the all-American staples of family and community.
“What we need in America,” he continued, “is a moral agenda that is tied to a concrete agenda for building and rebuilding our communities.”
It wasn’t enough, he said, just to talk about “getting our fair share.” The citizens of a community have to be the “producers” of change. “The thrust of our organizing must be on how to make them productive, how to make them employable, how to build our human capital, how to create businesses, institutions, banks, safe public spaces — the whole agenda of creating productive communities. That is where our future lies.”
Another fifteen years went by, but his message remained undeterred. “I’m here,” he told an audience recently, “to reaffirm my deep conviction that we’re greater together than we are on our own. I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules.”
Voters agreed. And so, ten days from now, that man will take the oath of office to become President of the United States for a second term.
In writing this story, it occurred to me that those who voted against Barack Obama may have more in common with him than they realize. They believe in family. They believe in church. They believe in community. They believe in America.
They may not trust the government or the man who runs it, but they do believe that we’re greater together than we are on our own. That’s why they work at companies and root for sports teams. That’s why they celebrate our armed forces and pledge allegiance to our flag.
They believe in instilling values in our children, playing by the rules, doing their fair share, and getting a fair shot.
So maybe it’s possible, just for a day, for us to put aside our disagreements and celebrate our common beliefs. Just once, maybe we can come together as one community, one collective institution that has survived and flourished for over two centuries. And maybe, just maybe, we can applaud for our President — if not for who he is, then for what he represents: our great American family.
On Inauguration Day, may we all find something to believe in.
This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.