On Fire for Freedom by Mary E. Latela, November 3, 2014
We decided to join a political party when a young man came along, who seemed afire with enthusiasm for a better way, for a truly united nation, where people were not excluded because they were poor or hungry, or barely keeping up with the rent in a small home.
We shared some convictions, mainly, that we are all here for one another. We expected that the government would help those who were in need – not forever, but by enabling them to train for a better job, feed their children, keep a caregiver job, and look ahead to taking hold of their own future.
When this man of the people died several years ago, we could sadly note that his dream of healthcare for all people had not been realized. But I read his words, which still mean the world to me, in my corner of the world.
I remember Anisa, whose husband had left her, whose mother kept her three-year-old daughter during the day so that Anisa could work and take classes to earn her certification in a healthcare job. They received food stamps and the government package of flour and cheese and pasta. She was cheerful and hopeful, and she did succeed.
I had a male student who looked very tired, even depressed. This was a preparatory English class for people who had some training in English, but who needed practice and guidance in honing their writing and speaking skills. They needed to be able to communicate with their boss, with retailers and car mechanics. One day after class, he came up to my desk, his dark eyes clear and composed. He said, simply, “Madam, I am a refugee. I cannot pay for the text book. Is there a way I may borrow a book?”
I nodded and looked at him. “I know what we can do.” The Dean of Students at this community college in Hartford could help. She was working in her office. I explained that this student needed a book, and she slipped two twenty dollar bills into an envelope and handed them to me. Solemnly, they shook hands. “Let me know if I can help in any other way, Sir.”
Many people remember the idea of the “safety net,” which included subsidies from the government to assist people who needed a little help. Everyone was involved. When I asked the gentleman where he was from, he told me it was a place that no one likes, namely Serbia. He and his wife had escaped with his mother and their two children. They were staying with another family for now.
Call me naive, but I was dismayed that a family came here with nothing, to escape a life which was tumbling down around them. And some other, comfortably residing here, resented their presence. Our sin is always looking for a scapegoat, someone to blame for all societal problems.
Our candidate, who did not win the nomination in 1980, used his speaking slot at the Democratic Convention to renew the heart of our tradition. After trying to avoid feeling lost under the burden of wannabe “leaders” in this election year, who lack civility and who claim to have the answer for real Americans, I recall the power of those convictions.
Imagine a nation which was known to welcome everyone, turning away people of a certain religion or philosophy or monetary worth, targeting them for hate-crimes and discrimination. Imagine a nation in which women still do not earn the same wage as a man doing the very same job, simply because, what? Men are worth more? Women are worth less? I am still committed to a fair and lasting prosperity, and I believe we can do this.
As our candidate said: “This is the cause that brought me into the campaign and that sustained me for nine months across 100,000 miles in 40 different states. We had our losses, but the pain of our defeats is far, far less than the pain of the people that I have met. We have learned that it is important to take issues seriously, but never to take ourselves too seriously.”
“Our cause has been … the cause of the common man and the common woman. Our commitment has been, since the days of Andrew Jackson, to all those he called the humble members of society — the farmers, mechanics, and laborers.” On this foundation, we have defined our values, refined our policies, and refreshed our faith.” http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/tedkennedy1980dnc.htm
We turned our enthusiasm to this candidate, and others like him, because we were amazed/appalled/ashamed when a cup of milk at school cost, not three cents, but a quarter. I remember that lack of compassion, and I remember those who decried inequality. This moment from several decades ago rings out still. It is not too late.