Home to wide boulevards, generous front lawns and sprawling Craftsman houses, Victoria Park comprises part of one of Los Angeles' most ethnically and aesthetically diverse neighborhoods. That diversity was mirrored by the crowd, the line-up and the ethos of October 4's Barack Your World Fundraiser and Culture Jam, which featured live art, djs, poets, musicians, academics and local nonprofits. The fundraiser was born as the brainchild of Lisa Schultz and her team at The Whole 9, a networking website for working artists. Raising $10,000 - $20,000 for the Obama campaign was only one of the evening's goals. Just as importantly, Schultz and her cohorts envisioned the evening as an opportunity to "do something to change minds rather than just raise money."
Because service and giving are some of Obama's core values, The Whole 9 contacted Pilar Stella Ingargiola of One Giving, who makes it her business to connect philanthropists with philanthropies. Ingargiola, in turn, "reached out to three nonprofits that resonate with Obama's philosophy": Peace4Kids, Youth Mentoring Connection and Healing Bridges, each of which sent a representative to the evening's festivities. The notable thing about Obama, says Ingargiola, is the eclectic mix of people who show up to support him. As evidenced by tonight's multicolored and multicultural crowd, he "attracts people from all walks of life."
An easel on Schulz's front porch supports a larger-than-life size letter to Obama, waiting for signatures from the evening's guests. Dominic Hoffman's letter pledges that its signatories will "will strive to do our part in the makings of our country, our world" and in return asks Obama to pledge "to lead this country with the integrity and responsibility" he has promised during his candidacy. Hoffman notes that "We obviously hope for a great deal," but "This is no time for small measures. "
Propped against a wooden fence in the front yard, a dystopian painting by Mear One commands the viewer to "Resist complacency." According to his website, Mear One, graphic designer and "acknowledged king of West Coast graffiti," sees art as a "weapon of mass liberation." He completed the painting extemporaneously during the party's first few hours, yielding the spotlight to speakers like the political science professor who exhorted the crowd to remain vigilant and outspoken against the insidious racism of the current campaign. Obama supporters couldn't afford to be complacent, she explained, because of the possibility of the Bradley effect distorting a true picture of his standings in the polls.
Singer Nailah fronted the first live band of the evening. Nailah, who describes her musical style as "Carolina blue/black tobacco-stained wisdom dressed in sacred cotton hand-me-downs," dedicated a song to John McCain and the Bushes. "I know why Jesus wept," she crooned. "Eight years of Bush/Economy goin' down the drain... Bailing out Wall Street while people losin' their homes... Streets ain't safe for our babies... My mama used to say, sometimes words ain't enough; you just gotta moan..."
Ruth Carson, Nailah's manager and proprietor of Brave One Entertainment, told me that "Obama's success does not necessarily affect my economic status that much. But I have a 10-year-old daughter... I'm fighting for her. It's going to take a long time to fix the mess that's been created over the last eight years. [Democracy] is like a marriage. You just can't walk out on it because things are tough. There are bumps, boredom. It's hot; it's sexy; it's not. There are children, and you stay for the children, and you work it out." She thinks Americans have to be realistic about the difficulties the next President is going to face. It's not going to be easy, and she has another metaphor for the country's forthcoming transition: pregnancy. "Expect morning sickness, bodily changes. You can embrace [pregnancy] or you can miss it worrying about 'Oh my God, I'm getting fat.'...America needs to get pregnant with Obama and trust that the birth will be magnificent."
Because all of the evening's donations were being sent to the Democratic effort in the battleground state of Ohio, Schulz took over the microphone to speaker-Skype Doug Kelly, Executive Director of the Ohio Democratic Party. Schulz asked Kelly to explain the impact of the guests' contributions. "Well," said Kelly, "you certainly picked the right state at the right time." He explained just how crucial Ohio's votes really are. "McCain has a 1.67% chance of becoming President if he doesn't win in Ohio." He reported "terrific news from the ground," noting "that the majority of people who are making up their minds are moving towards Obama."
When a sudden technical difficulty interrupted the phone call to replace Kelly's voice with a loud crackling, crowd members shouted "Conspiracy!" and Schulz joked "That was our Republican fly-by." At the restoration of the connection, Seth Baxter of Hip Hop Café quipped, "Even with technical difficulties, peace will still be given a chance.
Kelly went on to explain that some monies would be used for Obama yard signs and though yard signs aren't typically credited for winning elections, they're currently important they serve as catalysts for conversation between neighbors. Racial bias is an elephant on Ohio's lawn, but "People in Ohio are [now] saying to one another, 'We're drowning and I don't care if that person on the shore is black, red, white or blue, as long as he has a strong right arm to throw that life preserver."
After the phone call, guests feasted on a dinner of fried chicken, corn bread and collard greens while waiting for spoken word artists Steve Connell and Sekou (tha misfit) to provide the highlight of the evening's entertainment. The team of poets has been actively making the political rounds, having introduced Obama at Oprah Winfrey's fundraiser. Each performed a solo poem, before presenting a collaborative piece called "Take America Back."
Sekou, who described "Take America Back" as the duo's "Gladiator battle cry," prefaced the piece by asking the audience, "You ready to go to war? We've got a battle to fight. Peace on November 5." The poem's fiery lyrics reclaim terms and concepts that have been co-opted by the right: freedom, patriotism, truth, war, the earth, rights, Christ, what it means to be pro-life. In fact, they said, "If we demand it, we could take back the whole planet." Connell and Sekou's performance was loud, in sync, choreographed and electrifying. They drew a standing ovation.
Even more musical acts rounded out the night, as political partiers lounged in the various areas of Schulz's property. Would Obama have engendered this kind of true street-level support had he accepted public money for his campaign? Maybe; given his ability to inspire, it's possible that he would have. But maybe not. Perhaps garden parties like this one are the overlooked benefit of his much-maligned decision to accept private money in spite of his avowal not to do so. In Los Angeles, where too few people know their neighbors, bringing them together is a revolutionary accomplishment. The phrase "culture jam" can signify many things: interference with mainstream messages, "provocation of an interest in civic engagement and social connectedness," improvisation, pressure or pushing, blending and preservation of disparate parts. In the end, Barack Your World managed to accomplish all of these things. Actually making money in the process was a bonus.