It was with great sadness this week that Rob and I learned of the passing of our friend Melanie Shouse, who we met and photographed at a St. Louis Campaign for Change meeting during our travels for the We Are the Ones Project. Melanie was a tireless local organizer for Obama during his presidential campaign, and after his election she refocused her energy on healthcare reform, a fight with which she was all too familiar.
The portrait of Melanie which we chose for the Project stands in stark contrast to the ebullient energy of many of the others included in the collection. This image, more than any other, captured an air of hope and quiet conviction, even in the face of challenges that lay ahead.
When we asked our portrait subjects to submit their “Stories of Change” for the Project, Melanie responded immediately with a personal account that was at once heart breaking and resolutely hopeful. Below is a re-posting her submission, in it’s entirety.
“Freedom had been hunted round the globe;
Reason was considered as rebellion;
And the slavery of Fear had made men afraid to Think.
But such is the irresistible nature of Truth,
That all it asks - and all it wants
Is the Liberty of appearing.”
Tom Paine, American Revolutionary Patriot;
from Rights of Man, 1792.
I am a 40-year-old veteran of decades of Republican ideological hegemony in our nation. The tired old dogma of trickle-down economics (aka “Tax and Steal”) and imperial military bombast which emanates from today’s Washington as unchallenged gospel has pitted “red” against “blue”, white against black, green (☼) against Green ($), and finally led us to the absurdity of orange alerts to “scare the hell out of the American people”, an old tactic dredged up from the depths of the Cold War. The culmination of this dangerous, narrow ideology has driven most Americans into the red and turned our bountiful planet ashen grey as an unprecedented climate crisis driven by insatiable greed and corruption threatens to snuff out our very existence as a civilized species. The pall of sullenness and despair that has smothered America in these years, snuffing out hopes and dreams for a better future, has been painful to witness and challenging to survive
Hope has been in scarce supply in Republican America. But that would begin to change for me several years ago, when my Grandpa Joe (now passed away) introduced me to the writings of the great American Patriot Tom Paine. His clarion call to the world during the darkest days of the American Revolution would shake the foundations of monarchy around the globe, and bring a people together from all walks of life to rise up against the most powerful dynasty in modern history, the omnipotent British Empire. Reading Paine’s fiery words was like feasting on a delicious banquet after decades of wrenching hunger. This was HOPE for the future, a vision moved forward by the shot heard ’round the world from Jefferson’s mighty pen, that “all men are created equal.
That hope would serve me well in the next few years as I received an unexpected diagnosis of late-stage breast cancer at age 37, due to inadequate health insurance with exorbitant fees that kept me out of our medical system. The dreaded disease would prove to be a blessing in disguise, as the grueling pursuit of operating and growing a small business would soon give way to a more relaxed pace, with more time to read and reflect. As I moved from Tom Paine to Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King in my quest for a deeper understanding of our nation’s history, it soon became clear that great men (and women) do exist, and that they achieve greatness through the power of their ideas.
When I read my first book of speeches by Abraham Lincoln, his simple and brilliant analysis of the true vision of our founding fathers struck me as if I had been born again. Lincoln’s humble beginnings never squelched his dream of acquiring a world-class education, which he achieved on his own by borrowing neighbors’ books and reading them voraciously during breaks working the fields, or by the firelight of his family’s cabin. As President, he was ridiculed in the palaces and parlors of Europe and New York, even called “the original gorilla” and worse; but he never let up in his quest for the more perfect Union that our founders envisioned. His words ring as true today as then: “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence… which gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to all the world, for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights would be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.”
Armed with these powerful ideas, I joined my community to help organize a grassroots campaign to recall a lawbreaking Mayor. More than once, I took the podium at City Hall to launch vivid speeches in defense of our Constitution and the rule of law, with help from such giants as Lincoln and Paine. We were an unusual bunch, of all political stripes and ideas, but we came together for that brief shining moment and orchestrated a successful recall movement against entrenched corruption at the local level that made international news. Unfortunately, we became the victims of our own success and soon splintered to the four winds in the partisan political faction that Washington had warned could threaten the very existence of our nation
This disappointment did not last long, though, as the winds of Change blew down toward St. Louis in 2007. On that bitter cold day of February 10, I joined a buoyant group from East St. Louis on a bus journey to Springfield, Illinois to witness our true Son of Lincoln take the stage of history on the steps of the Old State Capitol. As we marched into the throng, I was amazed and overjoyed by the massive crowd of all ages, races and backgrounds waiting with baited breath for history to be made. While there was ice in our hair, we were warmed by the hope in our hearts and joy in our souls as we contemplated the possibility of achieving an honest government of the People, by the People and for the People, the evolution of two centuries of struggle by Americans of all colors and creeds. We would no longer be divided by fear and hate, but united in hope
The day after returning from Springfield, I joined Obama for America online and in August of 2007 attended Camp Obama, the incredible grassroots training program set up by the campaign. This enabled me to initiate North County for Obama, a St. Louis Obama group that helped deliver 73% of the primary vote in our district for Barack Obama. We have been meeting regularly since August of 2007, volunteering at huge Obama rallies, organizing campaigns at local events, postcard parties, Barack-B-Ques, voter registration drives, and general community outreach. The incredible people I have met throughout this movement have sustained and nurtured my energy and optimism for the future of our country.
I was forced to pull back from the campaign temporarily in August as I returned to chemotherapy, but am doing very well and have my train tickets to the inauguration in hand (I hope to meet Joe on the Amtrak!). The happiest moment in my life will be when I stand with my wonderful mother, a hard-working Kansas City “Obama Mama”, on the steps of the Capitol on January 20 to witness the inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States of America. This will represent the fulfillment of Tom Paine’s vision: “We fight not to enslave, but to set a country free, and to make room upon the earth for honest men.” We’re counting on you Barack – Yes, We Can!
Overland (St. Louis), MO
This week Melanie’s story strengthened the resolve of the president, himself, when Obama spoke of her battle with cancer and the health insurance coverage that denied her treatment. “How can I say to her … ‘We’re giving up … This is too hard’?”
Melanie Shouse’s greatest wish was to see healthcare reform enacted in her lifetime. Now, it is our responsibility to her, and those who share her struggle, to continue this fight and bring about the changes that we campaigned and voted for in 2008.
To get involved in the fight for healthcare reform go to:
We Are the Ones we’ve been waiting for!