Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Ethiopians & the '08 US Presidential Elections

Decision 2008: The Ethiopian Community on the Eve of the 2008 US Presidential Elections

John F. Kennedy once said, “The American, by nature, is optimistic. He is experimental, an inventor and a builder who builds best when called upon to build greatly.” What then can we say about the Ethiopian-American by nature?

American politics does not seem to be on the frontline for many Ethiopians living in the United States. That is relatively understandable since after all America is not our country, so why should we get involved? Or is it? To many 1st generation Ethiopians, America is our home just as Ethiopia is, allowing us the freedom to be not only Ethiopian, or American, rather Ethiopian American. Why then don’t we see a higher participation from the Ethiopian-American community in American politics? And how important is it that the Ethiopian American community be active in American politics?

Growing up in a new country, a new land, a new life style, a new generation of Ethiopian Americans, have endured similar obstacles. They have been caught somewhere in between the paranoid, overprotective pessimistic parents and the world of their free, liberal, optimistic American peers, a chemistry that creates the unique character of the Ethiopian American identity. Ethiopian Americans such as Mike Endale, or Million Fikre, or simply the general Diaspora who are in the spotlight, because they choose to represent who they are and who can decipher their lifestyles. They choose to become part of something big, or even start something small that makes a difference.

For the first time in the history of US presidential elections, a female candidate and an African-American candidate are in the running. As we approach one of the most pivotal and diverse presidential elections of our time, we have voters who are pushing their support for their candidates and voters scrambling to choose a candidate that best represents them and their beliefs. We then also have those voters who are not exercising their rights by not participating.

“It’s about community activism, not about politics”, former Ethiopian Students Association International (ESAI) president Mike Endale says. “We should definitely get involved in American Politics”. Mike spends a great deal of his time and effort campaigning for Senator Barack Obama. He plans to raise 100,000 dollars for his campaign. Mike became a fan of Senator Obama after the Senator’s inspirational speech at the Democratic National Convention in June 2003. “Obama represents my points; we should do things together”.

As optimistic as Mike is about Senator Barrack Obama winning the election, he admits that it is hard to get the Ethiopian community interested in what is going on in American politics. “Unless it is a social event, unfortunately you probably won’t see the Ethiopian community there”. Mike has used this to his advantage, throwing social events to raise money for Senator Obama’s campaign, such as happy hour’s and barbeques. “It’s always “cool” to be part of something big”, Mike implies as an incentive to get the Ethiopian community involved.

“The community has no choice but to get involved”, says Elias Wondimu, a Los Angeles based book publisher and community activist.

"As an individual, we may vote for Democrats or Republicans, for Clinton or Obama, or even abstain, but the community has no choice but to get involved collectively", says Elias. Furthermore, Elias adds, "issues unique and important to our community are only going to be addressed when we, as a community actively participate in the American electoral system".

Million Fikre, a field organizer in Iowa for Senator Obama, believes it is extremely important for Ethiopians to vote, because those who vote wind up getting represented. Fikre spends most of his time on the job trying to identify who Senator Obama’s supporters are on certain issues and lets people know where Senator Obama stands on them. He also does political outreach and is constantly spreading the word to members of his community about Senator Obama’s campaign.

“I don’t think we should vote for Obama because he is a black candidate, rather for his visions and issues in his campaign”. Fikre believes we have a responsibility to stand up for ourselves and make sure we are represented.

With only a few months until the 2008 presidential elections, the anticipation of America grows as to who will be our next leader, something that effects every living person in America. And so, my fellow Americans, or rather Ethiopian Americans: ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country. What will you do? Vote and become relevant or skip the election and remain invisible?

Bethel Tsegaye is a journalist based in Northern Virginia. She is currently in the final year of a four year degree in journalism at George Mason University.

Cross Posted from The Ethiopian American

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