Let's tap into the energy of the campaign to transform our communities

January 20, 2009|By Dawna M. Cobb

Of the many wishes I have for the Obama presidency, one is that the excitement, energy, hope and good will generated by his campaign and election can be harnessed and returned to the communities from which they came.

On the night of his election, Barack Obama exhorted us to join him in remaking our nation. So I say: Let's get going! Mr. Obama, please call upon all of us - those who supported you as well as those who didn't - to make positive changes in our cities, towns and rural areas.

I recommend projects that bring people together. In my city neighborhood, Charles Village, a few of us organized a house painting contest with the simple goal of improving the look of our neighborhood. The contest inspired several residents to reclaim vacant or run-down houses and turn them into well-tended homes. Others simply painted their houses brighter colors. Some neighbors organized others on their block to paint their houses and entered the contest as a group.

While the contest did leave our neighborhood looking better, something more profound - but unanticipated - happened. The chance meetings and conversations between neighbors who met on sidewalks, while standing on ladders or painting porch spindles, left Charles Villagers feeling more connected to each other. That connection, which continues to inspire Charles Villagers to paint their houses even though the contest has long ended, is what all communities need to become stronger, cleaner and safer. It is that feeling of belonging that so many people crave but sometimes find hard to achieve.

Americans want to help - but they need a little help getting started.

The new president can collect the stories of those who have responded to his call and put them on YouTube as an inspiration to Americans from Alaska to Maine, Hawaii to Florida. He could use his Internet savvy and stable of supporters to sponsor local "meet ups" to clean a park or paint a school. Inject some competition along the way - Americans love to compete. Organize regional conferences like the "Neighbor to Neighbor" conference sponsored years ago by a Baltimore nonprofit, where folks met to share their successes and learn from others who faced similar challenges, from how to start a neighborhood watch patrol to organizing an after-school program for local kids. The 2009 version might produce a listserv like those of many professional organizations where volunteers and activists could pose questions and offer suggestions after the conference is over.

As Mr. Obama travels across the country, I hope he will make time to meet with those who are working to improve their communities. The more engaged and connected we become with each other and our communities, the more we can accomplish.

Mr. Obama, we need you and you need us - and as corny as it sounds, when we work together with a common purpose, inspired by a great leader, there is little we can't do.

Dawna M. Cobb, a lawyer and community activist, is assistant dean for student affairs at the University Maryland School of Law. Her e-mail is dawnacobb@

mindspring.com.

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