Society: it’s a collective noun

Eight years ago we stood shoulder to shoulder with Americans from all walks of lives on the Mall in Washington DC, keen to share in the sense of optimism brought about by the election of Barack Obama. It was cold and a snowfall overnight didn’t do much to entice us out of our cosy beds but out we went, this was our chance to be part of history. The year before I had jokingly promised my brother we would be there for the inauguration if Obama won, at the time my brother and his family were well into a three year placement in Virginia where he was on a secondment with the US Navy (yes just like NCIS, well almost, minus the crime solving and adding a lot more logistics!) at the time Obama was an unexpected contender little heard of on this side of the pond.

I’d hoped but never dreamt it would actually come true. But six months later we flew across the Atlantic and found ourselves on the outskirts of Washington honouring that promise. That morning, we left the house a bundle of excitement, unsure of what to expect. My three nieces all under 14 at the time were buzzing with questions, as adults we tried to keep up, my politics degree meant my knowledge of the US Constitution and government was tested all day long!

This was history in the making. I’ll never forget the sense of shared purpose as we gathered with Virginians  from all walks of life to board the special buses laid on to whizz us into DC for the inauguration. We crushed onto our bus from the suburbs and watched through the frosty windows as we sped down a Beltway normally choked with traffic now unusually clear, quite historic in its own right. There were celebratory banners hung from the overpasses and police cars with lights blazing protecting the route.

Icy air took our breath away as we left our bus and joined a throng trudging through the snow and ice towards the Mall, at this point we had no idea how we were getting home or when, we didn’t care. I confess to the odd wobble or two, generally me and big crowds do not get on, my first instinct is to run (away) or failing that duck and cover. The sheer number of people was breath-taking, but the sense of anticipation was palpable, I so wanted to be part of it so I gulped down my fears and carried on walking, eventually we found a spot for us and the girls, near a big screen, and marvelled at the mass of people gathered down that long, long, avenue. I don’t remember hearing a harsh word that day, that may be rose-tinted specs, but honestly I just remember us all being together, happy to be present in the moment. There were generations of families there together, holding hands, smiling, talking to strangers, sharing the experience.

That day, in a foreign country amongst strangers, I felt no fear or hatred, just an enormous outpouring of love & hope. I can’t claim to understand the relationships or back stories of the people who stood alongside us, but I saw more than one parent or child wipe away the other’s tears of joy. I watched grown children look after their elderly parents, it felt like they were determined to ensure they could witness, even at a distance, the democracy they had fought for all their lives.

It was spellbinding to hear the oath of office taken over the speakers and watching the crowds reaction. I was deeply moved. We sang, chanted and cried together regardless of nationality, race, religion with a sense of common ground, shared purpose.

It felt like a collective yearning and commitment to make things better. There were deep emotions that day on the Mall, the sort that you feel physically in your body, that stay with you reverberating around your heart and mind for days and years. Two days later walking around New York sightseeing I recall being stopped in my tracks by the memories. Even now recalling it stills my mind for a moment, were we really there? Foot sore but heart happy we finally headed for home late in the day. What a day…

This blog isn’t the place to have a debate about the record of the subsequent eight years of the Obama administration. This isn’t  a political blog, I can only write about my personal experiences of that day. As for the rest, I have my view and you’ll have yours, we’re both entitled to those. But what I took away from that experience was how important it is to remember that collectively, wherever we find ourselves, we can bring about positive change. As Jo Cox said in her maiden speech to the House of Commons: “We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”

Together we can challenge bigotry, protect the vulnerable and poor and build a better society for future generations, to be honest we could make a start by doing a hell of a lot better at building a better society for our own generation.  Eight years on I still believe that all the energy and empathy we witnessed on that day can be harnessed for good.

Eight years on we do well to remind ourselves that ‘yes we can’ is more than political rhetoric it is a call to action (expressed eloquently by President Obama in his final speech).

“I’m asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.” 

Now more than ever, it’s our job to build, strengthen and protect our societies and our communities whether they’re local, national or worldwide. It starts and ends with how we treat each other. Respect, trust, empathy and understanding are touchstones for ensuring we can live alongside one another in all of our glorious diversity. These aren’t things we can take for granted as the last year has surely shown us.  Sadly when we individually pass on that responsibility and leave it to someone else to ‘fix’ things we only have ourselves to blame. After all society is a collective noun isn’t it?

You are already missed President Obama. Thank you and Michelle for your service and your example to us all for how to live respectful, tolerant and loving lives.