12/05/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Two Years of Inspiration

"I can't vote," my young friend Richard said sadly. "I tried, but they told me I couldn't." He sighed.

I nodded in sympathy. Richard is a foreign exchange student at the local community college. He works at the indoor college pool where I swim laps a couple times a week when classes are in session.

"You have to be a citizen," I explained. He told me that he has spent his spare time doing all he could to get his classmates to register to vote and show up at the polls.

"Did you know Obama's father was from my country?" he asked in his lovely sing-song voice.

"Yes!" I said. "He was from Kenya. The Luo tribe, right?"

With a joyful laugh, he nodded. I could see that he was flabbergasted that someone from this small conservative West Texas town would know a damn thing about Kenyan tribes, or care, for that matter.

The next week, I gave him a copy of Obama's Dreams from My Father, with a note saying, "To Richard, my Kenyan friend. May all your dreams be as blessed as Obama's have been."

These are extraordinary times for those of us who can vote, and even for those who can't but who have participated in this election as volunteers.

Back when I was a teenager and my high school journalism teacher made us all go on a field trip to a Nixon rally at Southern Methodist University, six of my classmates and I got up from our front-row seats and attempted a walk-out in protest, but the Secret Service wouldn't permit us to leave the building. So we stood where we were, turned our backs to the stage, and remained that way in silent protest until we were finally, blessedly, allowed to get out of there.

I've been hooked on politics ever since.

And in all this time since that Nixon rally, I have never seen a more exciting demonstration of democracy in action than what I have witnessed in the past two years, since I first read both of Obama's books and signed on as a volunteer.

During the primaries, at a precinct-captain training event in Abilene, Texas, I arrived not knowing what to expect, since Abilene ranks as the second most conservative town in the United States--behind only Provo, Utah. I was pretty much used to being the only pro-choice Clinton-voting environmentalist civil rights advocate feminist in a hundred-mile radius. Maybe the whole state, if you didn't count Austin.

I got there on time, but the hotel conference room where we were meeting was already full and we had to wait until they could bring in more chairs. Finally, people had to stand, and they spilled out the door and congregated in the hallway, straining to hear.

When we each introduced ourselves, many of those with gray hair said that this was the first time in their lives they had ever volunteered for a political campaign, and more than half of the participants said that, as Republicans, this was the first time in their entire lives that they had ever supported a Democrat. There were young people who'd never gotten involved in a campaign before as well. There were white people and black people and young people and old people and Hispanic people and Asian people, all crammed into a room in Abilene, Texas, ready to go to work for Obama.

Even my conservative Republican sister, who worked twice on Bush campaigns, is proud of the conservatives that she has been able to "convert" to Obama. They send her all these virulent e-mails, and she responds by forwarding some of my blogs, or by asking me to refute some charge or other since she knows I do so much research--then she'll pass my answer along. Or she'll just talk to them herself, one on one, and say, "Look, I voted for Bush twice. If I say McCain would be a bad choice for this country, and that this stuff about Obama is just a bunch of crap, you should trust me that I know what I'm talking about." Very often, they do.

Recently, a young woman sales clerk approached me in a store where, as always, I was wearing my Obama T-shirt and buttons, and she said shyly, "I like your voting stuff."

I thought it was interesting that she referred to it that way. "Voting stuff."

Then she said, "I just cast my first vote," and grinned.

I told her that was outstanding, and still smiling, she replied, "I thought I was going to get to go with my dad, but I wound up having to do it alone, and I didn't know what I was doing. These old people were all going, 'Do this and go there and do that!'" She laughed.

Her attitude was very touching to me, and I said, "You never forget your first vote."

I decided not to ask her who she had voted for. I chose to be thrilled for her just that she had voted.

And she's not alone. In this election, there are millions of people from every ethnic group and every walk of life volunteering and voting, or, like my friend Richard, just doing what they can do.

For example, according to the Washington Post, non-citizens all over the country are, like Richard, getting involved even if they can't vote:

"Aicha Samrhouni is a legal permanent resident, one of about 12 million in the United States, according to Department of Homeland Security estimates. They enjoy almost all the benefits of citizenship -- except the right to vote.

"Less than half of the almost 1.1 million foreign-born residents in the Washington area are citizens, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Although a sizeable but unknown number are believed to be illegal immigrants, thousands are legal but have not been naturalized. They include foreign students, temporary workers, people granted political asylum and permanent residents such as Samrhouni, among others.

"Although noncitizens can't vote, they are not barred from participating in elections in other ways. Those with green cards, who have achieved legal permanent status, are permitted to make campaign contributions. And anyone can knock on doors, hand out fliers or register voters."

One example cited in the article was of a cab driver who offered to take voters to the polls free of charge:

"'I'm not a citizen, either, but I took 20 people to the polls on Election Day. So I voted 20 times.' That's the type of message that we're trying to convey, that you can still have an impact even if you can't vote.'"

There are all sorts of people who have volunteered for the Obama campaign for passionate reasons of their own. One of the hardest-working subsets of Obama campaign volunteers are Muslim-Americans, who have struggled for acceptance into American culture ever since 9/11. Whisper campaigns designed to paint Obama as a Muslim (and therefore, a terrorist) has been particularly hurtful to them, especially after John McCain commented to a supporter that Obama was not an Arab, but "a good man, a family man," as if an Arab-American could not be either one.

Even worse for the community was an incendiary DVD circulated in thousands of newspapers and paid for by a right-wing political action committee entitled, "Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West." This was deeply distressing because then, even friends, co-workers, and neighbors began to regard Muslims they'd known for years with suspicion.

Needless to say, there is a strong Get Out the Vote effort underway within the Muslim-American community. While they are disappointed that Obama has not been more forceful in their defense, they do believe that his election would help a great deal to tamp down some of the discrimination they have had to face, as was described in the Washington Post:

"(Campaign volunteer Mukit Hossain) came to this country to attend Duke and graduated with degrees in philosophy, mathematics and economics. Now he is a telecommunications consultant between jobs.

"Underneath, he says, he is a human rights activist, fighting not just for Muslims but for other ethnic groups, which share a common experience, facing discrimination in a society that seems to not want "otherness," no matter what that looks like.

"'Over the last eight years, whatever the ugly underbelly of society used to be has become more public and acceptable,' Hossain says. 'Presidential candidates have not been immune to that. It's acceptable to make racial slurs and not flinch about it. I hope whoever the next president is makes a tremendous effort to bring back basic decency."

The overwhelming turn-out within the African-American community is, of course, very moving on many levels, but perhaps one of the most powerful is the way elderly blacks are feeling about casting this historic vote. In the Post:

91-year-old Ruth Worthy of Washington, D.C. is profiled, among others. Every week for the past month, she has been going door-to-door in her neighborhood to campaign for Barack Obama. Sometimes she goes by wheelchair, sometimes on the arm of her nurse, but she goes.

"Worthy belongs to a generation of African Americans who have journeyed from some of the rawest and brutal eras of racism to the present, when they find themselves relishing the idea of a black man possibly becoming president.

"For many blacks ages 90 and older, Tuesday will be one of the most historic events of their long lives. They lived through Jim Crow, the Depression, world wars, the horrors of Emmett Till and the promise of the civil rights movement. Now, they're watching Obama (D-Ill.) lead in the national presidential polls.

"Be they women of relative privilege, such as Worthy, or those of working-class roots, many share the same awe at how far the world can come in a lifetime."

Another acivist group within the African-American community has been those voters who have long felt disenfranchised from the political process, as if their votes didn't matter, and that nothing would ever change for them even if they did vote.

They all have a strong sense of taking part in history, of sharing the moment they cast their votes for Obama with their children and grandchildren, according to a piece in the New York Times:

"Across the country, black men and women like Mr. Derrick Battle who have long been disaffected, apolitical, discouraged or just plain bored with politics say they have snapped to attention this year, according to dozens of interviews conducted in the last several days in six states. They are people like Percy Matthews of the South Side of Chicago, a 25-year-old who did vote once but whose experience was so forgettable that he cannot recall with certainty whom he cast a ballot for or even what year it was. Now an enthusiastic Democrat, he says the old days are gone.

"And Shandell Wilcox, 29, who registered to vote in Jacksonville, Fla., when she was 18, then proceeded to ignore every election other than the current one. She voted for the first time on Wednesday.

"Over and again, first-time and relatively new voters like Mr. Matthews and Ms. Wilcox, far past the legal voting age, said they were inspired by the singularity of the 2008 election and the power of Mr. Obama's magnetism. Many also said they were loath to miss out on their part in writing what could be a new chapter of American history -- the chance to vote for a black president.

"Mr. Battle, for one, remembers growing up in the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis and how intimidated the adults were about voting, and that left an impression on him. The older women he knew were afraid to walk to the polls, he said, for fear of being attacked. 'I didn't think it was for black people, period,' he said of politics before the Civil Rights era. 'We didn't have any rights, really. We were just coming into voting and everything.'

"Fast-forwarding to the present, he continued: 'I never thought that I'd see this day. I never thought I'd see the day where an African-American was standing at the podium getting ready to be president.'"

But of all the groups who have cast their votes in recent weeks or who will cast them on November 4, perhaps no other group has been more energetic, enthusiastic, and hard-working than our nation's young people. And Barack Obama deserves the credit, not just for inspiring them to get involved, but for providing tech-friendly inter-connected multiple-media-savvy formats streamlined for their own modern sensibilities.

In other words, he didn't just rely on top-down, we've-always-done-it-this-way party politics to reach young voters. He reached them where they LIVED--MySpace, YouTube, text messaging, e-mail, and blogging.

Articles in the Post and the New York Times tell how:

"If Obama becomes the first Democrat in 44 years to win the state, it will be in large part because of the Chrisi Wests of the world. They have sent e-mails, made phone calls and knocked on doors. They have texted and Twittered. And the Obama campaign has helped make it happen by speaking the language of cellphones, text messages and e-mail accounts -- and by giving thousands of young Americans who communicate this way the power to participate."

The Post describes how Chrisi West, 29, and millions more like her, set up their own e-mail distribution lists, brainstormed ideas with friends on how to spread the word about Obama, and, sometimes side-stepping obstructionist local political machines, came up with creative ways to get out the vote:

"'Chrisi. I was the guy who stood out in front of the King Street Metro passing out literature the day before the election in Virginia,' a supporter posted to one of West's call-to-action blog entries. Wrote another: 'And I'm the person in Alexandria walking the cat on leash wearing Obama buttons!'

"...The foundation of that network is the site, where activists can set up home pages, post blog items and sign up for or post events such as canvassing, phone-banking and debate-watching parties. Known as "MyBO" within the campaign and among the activists who use it, the network boasts 1.5 million users and has advertised 100,000 distinct events. West has hosted 61 events advertised through MyBO, she has attended 93 and she has joined 32 of MyBO's groups."

The article points out that this outreach paid out dividends the Obama campaign could not have anticipated. For instance, when the campaign opened a Virginia office, "the staff walked into the arms of a large family of volunteers who had been organizing through MYBO for nearly a year."

The article in the Times, "Campaigns in a 2.0 World," explains how this media-savvy appeal to the youth vote spread from just MYBO and Facebook to such innovations as effective uses of YouTube:

"Perhaps drawing on Mr. Obama's background as a community organizer, his campaign decided early on to build a social network that would flank, and in some cases outflank, traditional news media.

"...The campaign mined its online community not just for money, but for content. A video titled 'Four Days in Denver' about the Obama campaign had the kind of access that journalists would kill for, including the candidate working over his acceptance speech with a staff member and showing the family backstage making ready for their moment in the spotlight.

"It looked like a big-time network get, but it was produced by the campaign itself.

"'We're constantly experimenting with videos,' said Joe Rospars, Mr. Obama's new-media director."

In one brief but telling sentence, the article points out that McCain's campaign made much sparser use of the web, "in part because he appealed to a less digital demographic."

"Less digital." What a euphemism for the over-65 crowd. (My apologies to all you over-65ers out there who ARE tech savvy and therefore, most likely Obama supporters. You are obviously hip and cool.)

All of these disparate groups of people, and many others besides, will be coming together for one brief shining moment on November 4th to cast their votes. Turn-out in early and absentee voting has already been spectacular, and election officials are bracing themselves for record voting numbers.

As for me, well, there won't be any lines. I'll be casting my vote at the tiny cinder-block one-room community center building that sits squarely in the middle of two vast cotton fields out here in the wilds of West Texas.

Inside, there will be a couple of lunchroom-type tables set up with folks I know manning them. Most likely, no other voters will be there when I show up. We'll visit a moment. I'll show them my voter registration card and my driver's license, and I'll sign the sheet.

On the other side of the room, in opposite corners, will stand the two voting machines. They're the computer kinds, which always makes me nervous, but they are easy to read and understand.

For a moment, I'll stand there, remembering how, two years ago, I was a terrified Marine mom whose son was fighting in a war I opposed when I first read a speech given by Sen. Barack Obama, about how he opposed the war, too. I'll remember how I put my head down then and sobbed because, until that moment, I'd felt so alone, so helpless, so powerless.

I'll remember how I'd read his two books, cried some more, and jumped on board his campaign as soon as he declared his candidacy on a cold winter's day in 2007.

I'll think about how hard I worked through the months for him through a grueling primary season and an emotionally exhausting election season, how I quit working full-time as an author and turned all my energies, talents, and skills to getting this man elected, while my son fought yet again in Iraq and our family sent two of our nephews into war four more times.

I will know how, slowly through the months, even with the frustrations and the aggravations and the campaign fatigue...for the first time, I felt hope.

I felt empowered.

I did not feel helpless anymore.

I'll cast my vote for Barack Obama, (as will everyone else in my family, including my son) and I'll walk out of there into the windy West Texas sunshine with tears in my eyes and my head held high, and I will know that what Obama says is absolutely true, no matter who you are, where you live, how you volunteer, or where you place your vote:

One voice DOES matter.

And one person CAN change the world.