Obama in South Philly windowsills: Hope and Change on 11.2.2010

Just like some Latino families have faded pictures of the Virgen de Guadalupe or the Holy Family in their windowsills, some black families have pictures of the First Family in their windowsills.

On Election Day 2010, I volunteered to canvass South Philadelphia neighborhoods in order to get folks out to the polls. I saw a lot of crumbling buildings, and brownfields, but also a lot - a LOT - of images of Obama.

In South Philadelphia, Obama seemed to BE the Democratic party. "Obama needs your help - vote today!" some of the literature said. And most said they were going to. The neighborhood was economically depressed, but almost every SINGLE person I talked to - no joke - said they voted, or were on their way to vote, and knew where their polling place was. Contrary to popular belief, neighborhoods other than rich ones vote early and often.

It is, in public sector speak, an "engaged community." Here's the thing, though: being civically engaged and being served are two very different things entirely.

The Stimulus Bill was supposed to fix problems like elderly people being swindled into bad deals or out of their homes. One older man who pointed to a grassy field across the street from him and said that a developer came in there, started to build something, tore it down, and let it lie fallow. This man tried to re-model his home using that same developer, only to find later that the developer had gone bankrupt and the money he poured into improving his home had been lost forever. 

"That man robbed 51 senior citizens," he said. "And I've never seen a dime of my money back."

Residents of South Philly might "made their voices heard" at the polls, but they're just not listened to.

Which leads me to this conclusion: engagement is not enough. 

The public sector needs to check itself; dialogue and participation are no substitutes for respect.

The fairest conversations are ones in which both sides listen to each other; but politics is a blood sport.