For Obama Volunteer, A Solitary Sense of History

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By Krissah Williams Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 30, 2008

Donnell Stewart dragged her 19-year-old son out of the house, again, on a bright Saturday morning for the same reason she had all those other weekend mornings. "We're going Obama- eering," she sang out.

Desmond knew well not to argue. When he moved home last year after he was injured and lost his football scholarship at Hampton University, his mother told him he had to do two things to live under her roof: "You will go to college," she said. "And you will volunteer for Barack Obama."

Nearly every weekend since, they have gotten in the "Obama-bile" -- Stewart's beat-up maroon SUV, plastered with "Got Hope?" decals and other Obama bumper stickers -- and driven hours from their home in Catonsville, Md., to volunteer. The vehicle's transmission conked out last week.

Stewart believes the election of Obama would be "utterly life-changing," fundamentally transforming the way blacks think about themselves. "There is a depth of meaning to this election that can only be grasped by African Americans," she said.

Yet her journey sometimes has left her feeling like an outsider among the tens of thousands of young volunteers in the Obama campaign, a fast-moving mini-world where the term "post-racial" is batted around and colorblindness is a goal of many. For Stewart, the goal is advancing the black community. She has trouble understanding how this election could mean to those young workers anything close to what it means to her.

Even at home, Stewart often finds herself alone in her passion. Her boyfriend plans to vote for Obama, but that's the extent of his participation. The Democrat's historic campaign means little to him personally. While he admires what Stewart has done, he also finds much of it amusing.

And then there is Desmond, the reluctant volunteer. He, more than anyone, drives Stewart to try to make this history happen. The promise of the Obama campaign has made her see Desmond's future differently, and she wants him to see what she sees. Now, she said, "I'm not lying when I tell him you can be anything you want, even president."

On a Mission

"I'd hate to think if [Obama] lost, I was home doing my laundry," Stewart told Desmond one Saturday last month.

So the dirty clothes were in a pile as they left their one-story cottage with an Obama-Biden sign in the yard and two in the front windows. Mom pulled her hair back in a pony tail, threw on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt she bought at her first Democratic National Convention. She and Desmond headed south to Virginia, part of a groundswell of African American participation this election. A poll by ABC News, USA Today and Columbia University found that blacks are volunteering and donating money in this race at a rate far greater than whites and Hispanics.

The Stewarts' first stop was the Obama for America office in a run-down Alexandria strip mall, two doors from a burned-out laundromat and around the way from a Check Into Cash shop, to pick up registration forms and instructions. They were handed out by an Asian man in his 20s, who gave a quick and emotionless briefing.

"I've volunteered many places, and the only common denominator is the people in charge look as young as my son," Stewart said afterward. "I drove two hours; I expect someone to say, 'Hello. How are you?' "

She feels a twinge of annoyance at the campaign letting young people run things. "Some of them could use some home training," she said. "I think many of them don't realize the slights. You can only blame their parents for that."

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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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