In a corner, in the North Side Chicago neighborhood of Roger’s Park is a small, unassuming, but mighty cultural icon known as the Heartland Cafe. Opening its doors in 1976 as a celebration of the bicentennial, the Heartland Cafe’s mission was to serve wholesome food for the mind and body. Forty years later, the Heartland Cafe has not lost its activist and political roots. Many political candidates have held rallies and speeches there, including one young man who held rallies in 2004 when he ran for and won state senate, launching his political career into the national arena, our current president, Barack Obama.
Having grown up with the Obama administration it was a natural choice for me to experience Obama’s final speech in one of the first locations where he kicked off his political career, the Heartland Cafe. Heartland Cafe has grown since it first opened its doors. It has an organic grocery store, a connected bar, and restaurant. When you first enter the building, your nostrils are gleefully welcomed with the smell of delicious food cooking. But delicious food and organic beer aside, the Heartland Cafe is first and foremost a place for community engagement. And last night’s speech was no different. Leading the night’s events was the Heartland Cafe’s political coordinator, Kathleen Dillon. Dillon's love of politics and community was an echo of the type of grassroots citizenship Obama advocated for in his speech.
“As I started to get more into community organizing, I saw I wanted to do more with this platform,” Dillon said. “There has to be a what next.”
As we sat there, intently listening with our forks down, Obama used his farewell speech to give the nation a civic lecture on how to uphold our democracy. In ten days, we will witness “the hallmark of our democracy," as Obama mentioned in his speech, with the peaceful transition of power. But as Obama said, the true potential of our democracy will only be realized if we work together. Democracy requires a basic sense of solidarity; we rise or we fall as one.
Obama’s farewell speech was a throwback to grassroots and community organizing. He spoke with a frankness and candid furor with which we have not seen him speak in office. His frustration in regards to income inequality and racism was something we felt on a deep emotional level. And his words worked as an injection of inspiration to go back to our grassroots ways and do what we did when he was first running in 2008. This speech was a call to become stronger citizens who are all invested in upholding our democracy, freedom, and progress.
As I looked around the room, I saw people’s eyes well with tears as Obama thanked and praised his wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha. But more than tears, what Obama gave the people in the room on January 10th was hope. One of the attendees in the room was community activist Andrea Densham, who worked with Michelle Obama on HIV/AIDS activism and attended Barack Obama’s lectures before he launched his political career.
Densham expressed her daughter’s joy at getting into a university in Michigan, and what excited her the most was that she was going to meet people and interact with people who didn’t think like her, or necessarily believe in what she believed in. Densham explained how the night she took her daughter to Grant Park, at the age of 10, in 2008 for Obama’s election victory molded her and inspired her to be hopeful.
Being hopeful means being vigilant but not afraid and not giving into cynicism. The strongest message that resonated with those around the room was the idea of engaging in constructive conversation, especially with those who may not hold our same views. As Obama mentioned, politics is a battle of ideas. And although some may have the opportunity to live a more privileged life than others, it is our diverse experiences that make us stronger.
“The left can’t be so condescending, because it’s classist,” said Dillion, “If we don’t have good public education in this nation, and we have citizens who are working two or three jobs, and don’t have access economic mobility, etc. Our arguments are extremely classist against them (the right).”
It is only by working together and listening to each other that we can work together against the weakening of our values. But we should also remember, as was mentioned, that along with the battle of ideas, we all need to have some common facts.
Through laughter, tears, and yummy beer, we bid Obama farewell. His administration was far from perfect; it had an increasing drone and surveillance program, and we were among the nations that accepted the lowest number of refugees from the Syrian crisis. However, his administration did fight and succeed at creating a healthcare plan for all, even if it is flawed; got us out of the 2008 recession; opened a new chapter with the Cuban people; appointed Supreme Court justices who legalized same-sex marriage across the United States; and shut down Iran’s nuclear deal without launching a single missile.
“He did the best that he could,” said attendee Zainab Koroma. “I think people always put so much weight on the President of changing everything for everybody, but I really think within our political system the President can only do so much. We all have to go out and be vocal about our needs.”
The best accomplishment of the Obama administration, and the gift his farewell speech gave us all, is the hope to continue working forward.
“What resonated most with me is that we cannot rely on certain candidates, or figureheads to make this democracy great, the owness is on all of us,” said Dillon, “and I appreciated that reminder I felt like my president gave me a pep talk. I feel like he wrapped all us organizers in his arms and said you got this, you can do it.”
In the final words of Obama. “Yes we can, yes we did, yes we can.”
Top photo: Barack Obama, candidate for the US Senate, at rally at the Heartland Cafe, post being guest on the Live from the Heartland Show, pictured here with Alderman Joe Moore and State Representative Harry Osterman, February 2004. Photo by Michael Gaylord James, copywrite Michael Gaylord James. To see more of MGJ's wonderful photos please go to michaelgaylordjames.com.
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Isabel Dieppa is a writer and actor. She is a part of the performance duo Of This World in Chicago, IL. Her interests lie in science, art, and history. Past writing includes interning for the Chicago Field Museum ECCO program, the national theater blog HOWLROUND, music reviews for UR Chicago, and in a former life was a beat reporter for the Indiana Daily Student. She loves archaeology, kitties, and dancing. The next big adventure may include an archaeological dig in Peru. Follow her on twitter @isabelsdieppa