Bread and Roses. Again.

JULY 23, 2012

Tuesday morning, April 24, 2012. I am ridiculously excited. I am having lunch with Michelle Obama today. Well, me along with 2500 other guests. But still, I wake up thinking “what will I wear”? For my jacket lapel, my favorite button: “Obama 2008: My Vote Made History”
The First Lady is the guest speaker for “ Lunch with the Girls”, an annual event to benefit Girls Incorporated here in Omaha, Nebraska. Just two blocks away from our house, its North center is in the elementary school building that our daughter walked to for Kindergarten and first grade. The South center serves a neighborhood now made up predominantly of immigrant families. 80% of its members are girls from Somalia and the Sudan. The Girls Inc motto: “Inspiring girls to be strong, smart and bold”.
We are warned to expect “airport style security” so we are there plenty early with time to walk around, visit, and anticipate. We are 2500 people vibrating with excitement. It reminds me a little of the energy of the 2008 caucuses, when Nebraska Democratic voters assembled publically for the first time. There was hope. And it was public hope, not the hope of small private enclaves in a hostile red state. Eight years of greedy and ruthless materialism, warmongering and pandering to the wealthiest, had eroded the social safety net for all of us, but most of all for girls like these, growing up in a city with one of the worst rates of poverty for African American children, in the nation
There are huge video screens throughout the hall, and otherwise my view would be a pea-sized diorama — but we can all see this tall, graceful lady approach the stage.
“Rest yourselves, she says, sit down” – and there is IMMEDIATE compliance. It is the commanding and common sense voice of a good mother; the one not afraid to make use of her authority, and who will not abuse it; one who loves and knows she is loved. And she speaks to the girls, and only indirectly to the adults in their lives.
Girls Inc members are in charge of the day. Two girls, Muslim and Christian, offer the invocation. A mother and daughter share their family story of overcoming the crisis of family separation because of the mother’s drug abuse, and how the safe place at Girls Inc shored up the confidence of a vulnerable child. The First Lady is introduced by a Girls Inc member who is now a student at UNL. Girls stand behind her on risers, throughout her speech. Girls ask the questions. “Do you check out Sasha and Malia’s boyfriends before they can go out? (Yes, she answers, and does not add that so does the Secret Service) and “What advice can you give me to be as successful as you? (Go for the presidency, not the first lady spot) Why do you have a garden (For our family to eat healthy, just like you)
She speaks of the ordinary and the inspirational. Her campaign for children’s health, for basic good food and activity. She balances the messages of achievement – good grades, degrees, and professions – with the importance of our connectedness to one another – the good friend, the good daughter, the good neighbor; as good mothers teach, of manners, respect and civility.
Her small and personal message to these girls, of encouragement, is a large message as well; links the successes of their small lives to the well being of all of us:

“It couldn’t be more clear”, she says. “The success of our economy and the success of our country is directly tied to the success of women”.
It echoes the lines of the one hundred year old labor ballad Bread and Roses, written at the time of the Lawrence textile factory fire:
As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: Bread and Roses! Bread and Roses!
As we go marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.
As we go marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too.
As we go marching, marching, we bring the greater days,
The rising of the women means the rising of the race….

I just thought we might have made a little more progress since 1912.
It is mind blowing to have seen the backlash against women in the last four years. Girls like these, women like us, with brains and courage, as objects of hatred and fear. Who would have expected that contraception would be threatened in the year 2012, as it was a hundred years ago? In the 21st Century, who could have imagined a congressional hearing of male only “experts” on women’s health? The degree to which we have seen Intrusive and hateful legislation restricting abortion? Health care for all construed as socialism?
All emanating from fear and hatred of strong smart and bold girls like these, poor and immigrant; women like these, like us, who are here today, whose power is immeasurable.
Ann Romney, to the back of the line please.

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