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Archive for April, 2012

My Day with President Obama: March 30, 2012 

by Trish Passmore Alley ’72

Yesterday I had the privilege of meeting with President Barack Obama. I had been told I would have 90 seconds with him and had carefully planned what I wanted to say. I spoke with an aide the day before and asked if I could give the President a book. He asked what it was about, and I described Healing the Heart of Democracy. “Wow!” he said. “That sounds really interesting.” As we talked about courage and renewal, PassageWorks, and wonder and wisdom, the aide (who runs Obama’s campaign in New England) was really engaged. His father-in-law had just come back from a reconciliation trip to Vietnam, and he wanted to know what the inner life looked like in a classroom. I asked him if he would like a book too. “Yes!” (Luckily I had two copies.) I suggested he might want to start a book group.

Yesterday, things did not go as expected, as often happens in presidential politics. I found the aide, and gave him his book during our long security wait for the President. I “sold” quite a few copies of the book while working the room before we had to get in line. But when it came time to meet and greet the Prez, 90 seconds shrank to 30 seconds, and a different aide took the book away from me before I got to Obama. We had a “greet” but not much of a “meet.” I told him my friend in the Greensboro nursing home thanks him for being a loving and understanding human being, and that we have to do better by our children. I pointed to the aide who had taken the book and said, “I brought you a present.” He said he would look at it. That was it, darn it! Then I was ushered into the luncheon.

There were place cards at the tables, and I was all the way in the back, but directly in front of where Obama would speak. I was seated between JoAn Canning, our superintendent of schools who I’ve had difficulty scheduling meetings with about expanding PassageWorks classes and working with teachers in the district, and Margaret Cheney, state legislator and wife of our Congressman Peter Welch. We were having a pleasant lunch, though I was feeling bummed out about my fly-by with the President. When Obama appeared, he spoke briefly and then took questions. Yikes! I had to ask a question, and there would not be many accepted. His rules were “boy, girl, boy, girl.” Madeleine Kunin, our former governor, was chosen first, and I wondered if the questioners had been preselected. (They took Madeleine’s book away from her too!) The next question was from a man who wanted to know about Obamacare and the Supreme Court. Neither the question nor the answer were short. I thought the interchange was over and raised my hand. The dialogue continued briefly, but I was pretty sure Obama had seen my hand. When I raised my hand again quickly, he called on me.

This is what came out: “Parker Palmer says, ‘Violence is what we get when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.’ When children show up at school in kindergarten and first grade exhibiting violent behavior to the point where the schools cannot handle it, I have to disagree with Secretary Clinton: this is who we are. Would you be willing to hear about the successes of a couple of communities in Vermont who are teaching children to love and not just respond with fear, and if so, how should we be in touch?” He said, “You just gave me a book, and I assume it’s about that? I will read it, and a member of my team with be in touch.” JoAn whispered, “Go, Trish!” Did I say that?

Afterward, I caught Jane Stetson, the finance chair of the Democratic National Committee, and gave her a copy of my remarks (see below) that will be read today at Vermont History Day, for which I give the Women in History Prize each year in memory of my mom. I know Jane well enough to get a polite hug. I told her she and the President might enjoy reading the remarks on the plane.
And today I am back in Vermont’s “Northeast Kingdom,” walking the dog in the mud, savoring the quiet of not-quite-spring, and giving attention to my family’s grieving over the loss of our nephew. I often do not know how or why things happen and am becoming increasingly content to accept that they do. I do indeed have good company on the journey. Thank you.

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Revolution, Reaction, and Reform: Vermont History Day 2012

I had hoped to be with you today, but a death in my family interrupted my plans.

As I write this on Thursday, I plan to celebrate Women’s History Month by having lunch with Michelle Obama’s husband tomorrow. I had the opportunity to meet Michelle last June, and I have to say she is radiant, intelligent, down-to-earth—and very interested in reform. She is a “current event” rather than history, and I am sure she will provide many future opportunities for Women in History projects. We are lucky!

The topic for this year’s History Day seems very appropriate. We live in revolutionary times, there is an abundance of reaction evident around the world, and I hope meaningful reform will emerge through systemic cultural change. Parker Palmer says, in his new book, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, “Violence is what we get when we do not know what else to do with our suffering.” It is not just about health care, it is about who we are as human beings and how we live together on this planet.

I love what Gandhi said: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” When you embody this, you are a powerful change agent. Emerson said, “What you do speaks so loudly, I cannot hear what you say.” Cultivate an authentic presence, and people will notice and listen. Tell the truth with compassion, and always be respectful. Develop a sense of humor, especially about yourself. Smile. It’s good for your brain, and you will attract happy, positive people. Be clear and concise about what you want. People are not good at guessing. Make sure you say what you do want and not what you don’t want. When you say what you are against, you give it energy. This is what makes love more powerful than fear and violence. And remember that even open hearts have healthy boundaries.

Expect that some people will disagree with you, especially if they are invested in what you want to change. The Quakers have a saying that I learned from my dad: “Thee and I are in loving disagreement.” Do you feel the container this creates for civil, public discourse? It leaves a welcoming space for our roles and souls and for what Parker Palmer names as the two traits, occurring together, most needed in 21st-century America: chutzpah and humility.

Congratulations on your hard work. One advantage of studying history is that you can see the long-term impact of choices made. What kind of revolutions led to lasting and beneficial reform? Why did they succeed? Will you be part of a revolution? Are you willing to love it into being? It will not be easy. I wish you just the right balance between chutzpah and humility, good company on the journey, lives rich in meaning, and legacies that make your souls sing.

Patricia Passmore Alley

honoring winners of the Women in History Prize, in memory of Helen Vrooman Passmore

 

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