My Berlin Wall Moment

It took me a couple of days after the extraordinary evening of President-elect Obama’s victory on November 4 for the impact to really sink in. The election was an unprecedented opportunity on so many levels, and made me realize that I wanted to take part in, absorb, and embrace the change that would occur on Inauguration Day. There was no way that I was going to miss this celebration. This was my opportunity to participate in the 21st century version of the Berlin Wall coming down and the changes and opportunities that it rendered.

Fortunately, I only had to drive from New Jersey to D.C. and we had plenty of friends and contacts. During my three days in D.C., I was struck by both the intimacy and massive impact of the inaugural address and direction.

The inaugural was replete with an incredible array of music. From the Aloha Boys playing at the National Museum of the American Indian to at Al Gore’s Green Ball, the music was the reminder of the unifying theme of the inauguration and Americans in general. The actual theme was “out of many” and it was great to see people of all ages and backgrounds revel in each other’s music and culture. I was completely in the moment and there were non-stop moments during the three days.

One of the stars of the inaugural events was Metro, the D.C. subway system. It shows that when you plan and invest, government can work quite well. Over a million of us took the subway on Inaugural Day. My wife was able to get tickets into the capital grounds for the culmination of the three days. The only “glitch” was that the park and police did not have enough gates. We were all color-coded (ours was purple) but there was no gate open for purple so about 100,000 squeeze through a small gate. It took us over three hours to move a couple hundred yards, but I had a huge smile at 11:07 a.m. when I was cleared through security. Despite bad management on the part of the park service, everyone was in good spirits and being able to get through in time. We all knew that we were at a life-time event and were not disappointed.

I was expecting more of a Lincoln-esque lofty idea address than a Washingtonian address, but in retrospect the more sober address was probably more appropriate given the severe economic challenges we all face. The financial system is teetering and we can’t afford to have the financial system collapse anymore. It is a juggling act between helping slow down the families in foreclosure and financial crisis and ensuring liquidity and credit in the financial system. What do you do after interest rates are reduced to zero percent?

Hopefully, the stimulus will kick in sooner than later and some necessary infrastructure and energy efficiency strategies can be advanced. The pressure will be significant on the Obama administration and there is minimal time for a learning curve.

With all the challenges that we face, I left Washington on Wednesday more optimistic about the unifying elements of the inaugural and that we can move from fragmentation and division to shared and common directions to rebuild and strengthen the social and community fabric for all of us. After all, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

Robert Zdenek is a community development consultant and principal investigator at the Public Health Institute. He is the co-author of Navigating Community Development.


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