Inauguration Part II (guest post)

Here’s another account of the inauguration weekend from my friend Christa who drove up in the car with me. Thank you for the post, Christa.

Washington, DC, 1/17/09 – 1/20/09

So admit it, you are jealous that I was there in the middle of the action for the Inauguration. To be perfectly honest if you were not there, then you should be jealous- it was an absolutely AMAZINGLY memorable experience. (College ladies – i was sorry to miss the gathering, but hopefully next year!) Now I am not going to say you didn’t celebrate in your own credible way, but the palpable emotion and electricity in the air in this city’s vicinity was like none other that I have felt before. It is still running through my blood, still supplying charge and overcoming what should be a tired, tired lady. (Sleep total from the past 5 nights (1/16 – 1/20) is around 22 hours – though this is kinda par for my past few months, anyway)
I left ATL on Saturday, 1-17-09, with 3 others and hit the road at 5:15 AM. Somewhere mid-Virginia the traffic began to pick-up and the car load agreed that everyone on the road was undoubtedly traveling to DC. Though, we really did not understand the cars with Bush and Palin stickers headed North with us and someone let them know our confusion in a way that wouldn’t be described as reaching across the aisle. We descended upon Morgdoor and if you were to ask- what did you notice first? the response would be – port-a-potties. They were EVERYWHERE. It was clean, neat, not many people yet, and everything in order … with a blanket of port-a-potties. I even noted that someone should take a picture of the humorous expanse of johns. I attempted to take a shot, which is when I first realized the camera that I had bought 2 days prior specifically for capturing the trips moments had a dead battery AND I didn’t bring the extra little wire to plug the charger in. Oh well, on the last day I eventually realized disposable cameras really do still exist and got a couple of my own shots – we’ll see if I ever develop that thing. Little did I know how these plastic sanitarian boxes would come into my Inauguration experience. more to come on that note.

My host was a friend from grad school. Cait and I had bonded over biostatistics. She now works in DC and bought an adorable 1900 row house on the Hill/ Eastern Market – I loved all 11 feet wide of it, Cait, except for those pesky narrow wooden stairs – my back is still sore. (Um on a side note, I had some battle wounds from the 4 days and stairs in general were the main weapon, theoretical non-violent knives and punches played a role too, but I’m not not expanding in order to preserve some dignity here). Her location is damn convenient, just 7 blocks from the Capitol. Cait was not up for going out on the night of my arrival, but I was in full on let’s-get-this-party-started mode, so called up a very old friend, recently reconnected through FB, and met him at a reggae bar. My introduction to Kenya’s Tuskers beer led to a new favorite light beer and when asked when will I travel to Africa – I made a promise ( fyi – I keep promises, especially to myself, and even more so when it comes to travel) that night that it would be in under 5 years. Separate thoughts there – did not make that promise due to appreciation of beer’s continent of origin. Jim and I had some shared interest discussions on agriculture and development, his line of work with a non-profit, and I tried to argue for sustainable ag that supports natural resource responsibility, non-agrocorporate dependency, and agro-technology weary, but overall yet again realized I have so much to learn… and need to go and see realities for myself if I think I can suggest solutions – ha- I am so naive.

Sunday –
Today’s pursuit would be to attend the ‘We Are One’ Inaugural Celebration Concert at the Lincoln Memorial. The name of the concert was dead on appropriate capturing the sentiment I felt throughout the time there. Immediately everyone was your best pal, willing to lend a hand or directions, a smile, laugh, or a hug. Everyone just wanted to celebrate and share in the uplifted spirit of community and togetherness.
Back to concert – It was a cold one, somewhere in the 30’s, so we (hosts and Jess – all from grad school) layered up, not knowing what to anticipate with crowds, and set out into the unknown (warnings to DC’ers for the weekend advised stocking up on groceries, non-working communications, prepare for the worst, the world might end). The plan was to get some food at a certain restaurant, but when we got near to the Mall, we realized the place was further than we thought, so just to grab something at the snack stand and make our way onto the Mall to try and find a spot. There were massive lines at this time, before noon, to get through security, but we managed to get in at a thin spot. Soon after they closed the entrance area to where we were, close by the reflection pool. We staked out a spot about 1/2 way up the pool and with a decent view of a large screen. We just about froze waiting there for 2 1/2 hours before the show started, but it was worth it. The line up was incredible. I just remember thinking – am I really listening live to all these legendary musicians and actors? pinch me

That night I met up with some other friends from grad school and their DC friends and family in the Dupont Circle area with a night cap back in Eastern Market where I was staying. By this time I was getting the Metro system down, and had a good grasp on the neighborhoods and their whereabouts in DC. The last 2 times I had been to DC in the previous 14 months I had stuck to certain areas out of necessity for the purpose of those visits, so this time I really got to explore the city on my own accord. It’ s not very big and very doable. I enjoyed exploring the new sights and sounds, as usual.

Monday- MLK Day
I woke early, and tired, and hadn’t slept much the night before, but got myself out of bed at 8 in order to make my way over to an event across town that started at 9 AM. I heard about the Alliance for Justice event: Driving Change, the Role of Activists During the Obama Administration afj.org through my friend Edward, who kept track of all things cool to attend while at the Inauguration, which doesn’t fall stray from his normal log of keeping up and informing his networks with all things cool in the name of art, social and environmental justice, and the progressively motivated in Atlanta and the world, for that matter. (Props to Edward – #1 Inauguration attendee) Anyway – lots of side notes here- was I glad I did make the early morning hike. This event was one of the motivational highlights. If you do not know of Van Jones, then well, you should familiarize yourself. He is a phenomenal speaker with a pure, real heart, brilliant mind, and the stage presence to bring the house down. He captures the audience with his words and gets you to say ‘ yes, Van, I’ll do what ever you say. I want to save the world with you!’ Okay, slight exaggeration, but wow, does he move me. I’ve seen him speak before at Bioneers and loved him then, but I was blown away this time. Eli Pariser was great, too – started Moveon.org at 20 yrs old, 8 years ago and now most people I know receive emails from him through his outreach. JoDee Winterhof, VP Policy and Advocacy, CARE USA, brought some much needed references to global issues. But Van, man. he was highlighted in last week’s The New Yorker’s article ‘Greening the Ghetto’ and I promise, you will be hearing his name more and more, very, very soon. He started ‘Green for All‘ an ‘organization dedicated to building an inclusive green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty’. It is dedicated to bringing disadvantaged communities into the environmental movement, hones in on environmental justice issues, and latest lines have been around jobs for green energy – solutions for stimulating the economy around green energy jobs, but especially for those members of society who REALLY need the jobs and the skill building opportunities that green energy technologies present. He had me shedding tears at 10 AM, when he got up to speak and wished Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a happy birthday in a choked up delivery – a real tear jerker. Then to close the talk, Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary) and his daughter together with Bill Harley (I was in the 5th row!!!) sang ‘This little light of mine’. Amazing! It was my theme song for the weekend. Heard it a whole handful of times. They segwayed into ‘I woke up this mornin’ with my mind’ – I’m saying that a lot now. At the end I looked in the row behind me and there was a woman I met 3 1/2 years ago from Bioneers. She came to our conference in Atlanta in 2005, from the SF Bioneers HQ, and hung out at my apartment for a while – that was a fun surprise encounter. Turns out she now works for Van at Green for All. The overarching message from the event was that we are all are going to need to lend a hand to make things better. It is not up to Obama, but us. We need to lift him, challenge him, make him accountable, and do our part. He is not super-natural and needs us as much as we need him. The world is going to be different, but there’s LOTS of hard work to be done through multilateral approaches, sharing strategies and knowledge, and movement cooperation.

For my afternoon/evening activities I asked Karen, Cait’s roommate, if I could borrow her bike, since I knew I’d be jumping around to different neighborhoods, and it would allow for more controlled movement through the expanding crowds. I loved riding in DC. One couldn’t help but compare to cycling in ATL – here there were actually bike lanes and very few hills. It was a great way to see the cityscape, admire the architecture and urban planning of L’Enfant. But then again, biking is always the best way to see a city, and get around one for that matter. I passed the train station on my way NW, and people were pouring out – the masses were arriving full throttle.

That afternoon I set out to attend the Environmental Leadership Program Happy Hour gathering held at the International Fund for Animal Welfare – nice office space with great views of the city. ELP is a fellows program I went through in 2008, and have had a great experience with. The fellows program brings together those working on a range of environmental and social justice areas, with emphasis on diversity, leadership training, and movement building. Over the year there were 3, 4 day retreats, including at the Highlander Center, where many historical movement were nurtured including gatherings with Rosa parks and Dr. MLK Jr. I met incredible people in my class, then more at their 2008 conference where I moderated a plenary session, which happened to be themed this year – ‘Politics of Food’. More fantastic connections were made at this event, where I met fellows from all over the country, as well as from the SE/ Atlanta. Some great new friends include a researcher at Stanford looking at the impact of deforestation from biofuel production, particularly in Brazil and Africa. Another guy, I am meeting with next week (back in DC for work) to help him get a public health message incorporated in the work he does with mediating groups around climate change interests to formulate policy recommendations in a more concerted effort. Plus I got to see a friend from my class, who I became particularly close with and was able to meet her husband.

Hopped back on my bike and headed to Ben’s (other grad school friend) brother’s house for a dinner party they were throwing. ‘Ben’s chilli bowl’ was delish and went nicely with my ATL ‘Happy Ending’ beer for dessert, and the company was even better. We headed back out on the town and met up with other friends back down in Dupont. That night I rode home in the freezing but increasingly invigorating air.

Tuesday- Inauguration Day
The night before, there were something like 10 people that crashed at Cait’s, and most were up and at ’em around 6 AM. Not myself, as I was certain I wouldn’t get a great viewing spot for the swearing-in anyway, without a ticket. Turns out even those with tickets couldn’t get close, either, even with early AM arrivals. I started walking in the general direction about 2 hrs before the address and decided to just see where I ended up. I was supposed to meet up with Julie Benz-Pottie, dear friend from Atlanta, whom I had spent election night with, but we had a communication breakdown and I was on my own. I walked for about 1.5 hours, constantly being diverted in new directions by closed streets, barricades, fences, and of course the mass of people. It felt like I would never get close enough to even hear anything. Eventually I was able to move in closer to a jumbo-tron, by the Washington monument but still couldn’t see it straight on. There were however, people perched on top of a long line of port-a-potties and I was very curious as to their view. Some young girls helped pull me up and another boosted me from behind. I didn’t originally intend to stay up there, but it was the best view of a crowd I had seen yet, and though I was to the side of the screen, I figured I had a place to sit, and could hear, so stayed put. I became friends with the teenage girls from Maryland and then others who we helped pull up. Eventually the tops of the johns caved in from the weight, which was scarey at first, but they didn’t actually break and still felt secure – man, that sounds so stupid right now – yeah, being on top of a port-a-pottie with 7 other people is totally safe. So instead of being next to a Pottie, I was on top of one. (haha, I couldn’t help myself, Julie.)

The electricity in the air was stronger then ever, but I also sensed a serious vibe. On my walk back I saw people still yelling and screaming with delight, tears of amazement, and I can only hope that the sense I had of ‘we’re all in this together now’ continues. We looked overhead as Bush’s helicopter flew away. A guy next to me swung his arm and yelled ‘Get OUT of here!’ with disdain and relief. I was overwhelmed with empathetic emotional feelings for the African American community and what this new President means to them especially, but really to all of us, the world over. I think I can connect to that in a particular way, being a woman, another oppressed sector of human kind. Now I, too, feel like anything can happen.

I left DC that afternoon feeling different then when I arrived. This experience had left its mark on me. It may sound funny, but I have felt some parallels in my life to the country’s political events. 2008 was a stormy, enormously transitionary year for both- the country’s boat was rocked hard and so was I. Mom’s health concerns, a tornado through my back yard and neighborhood ripping out trees and causing property damage, my dear friend’s health problems, and another’s angel baby that had a rough time coming into the world, the unexplainable death of a friend from a random act of violence in the streets of Chicago, the burglary with lost electronics and sentimental jewelry, crashing a car in total, but oh well, that’s stuff, then especially the mental limbo with the deterioration of my relationship, planning and then unplanning a wedding, and moving out of my home (after a year of repairing a roof, plumbing, removing mold, rats, and a 90 yr old oak in the front yard, and nature taking our chickens). I guess this is just life’s ups and downs, anyway. Just days after I ‘voted’ for myself and changed the course of my future to be without a particular person, the country also cast their ballots for change. After the shake up comes work, reflection, and evaluation of where transitions and new policies are needed for a more balanced existence. I do count my blessings – I now have a job I like and a masters degree, wonderful family and friends, and my health, and most of all, I woke this morning with my mind, just like Peter said. – and a new President named Barack Hussein Obama. I am truly, extraordinarily fortunate and I do not forget that for a second.

God bless us all in 2009.

I took my first steps on this Earth as an infant in Washington, DC, and I am still contemplating the symbolism here, but I am certain I took some more big steps after this visit. I’ll be back 4 more times I know of this year, plus a possible couple months rotation in another federal agency, likely in DC. It is difficult to find the right words to describe this Inaugural experience, but I do know my ensuing trips to the nation’s capitol will never be the same. Others have described it, captured it with photography, in ways much more creatively then I. Here are some great photographs I came across and a friend’s reflections, nicely encapsulated.

Boston Globe’s Photos

Every time I read, see, or hear another account of another’s experience, I get goosebumps again and another tear. It was very special and I’ll never forget it.

Much love,
Christa Essig

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