Tuesday, September 16, 2008

It was Friday morning ... last ... when my office phone rang ...

It was program director, Sanjit Sethi, from the Richmond Arts Center asking if I would be willing to participate in a program involving teens; what did I recall about the first time I voted; would I be willing to be interviewed on camera, "... no more than 20-25 minutes." Did a quick mental calculation of just what commitments lay ahead for the rest of the day -- and, "yes" it was, of course.

The interview was scheduled for five o'clock. Never mind that it was the end of the day at the end of a long week and that energy was running on empty ... but I do love youngsters and a refusal just wasn't an option.

Arrived at the Art Center just as the program director was getting out of his car. My young interviewer was nowhere in sight, but arrived soon thereafter. It was Rodrigo -- and such a soft-spoken gentle soul he was. He was wearing an Amnesty International tee shirt and a jaunty leather hat. He appeared a little shy but open and direct with an earnestness that invited respect and suggested the seriousness of the experience. Fatigue magically dropped away and we were soon at work. We sat in straight-backed metal chairs with cameras aimed at each of us -- under intense lighting that served to blur the presence of the others in the room. They soon dissolved into the darkened background and then there was only Rodrigo ... and me.

Rodrigo's first question was "when did you first vote?" and I was surprised that I couldn't recall just which president that was. I stumbled and stuttered for a minute and came up with something. I remember now that my first vote had to be for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, surely. I was 21 and it was mid-WWII. It had to be. But I answered pretty tentatively. Since I have never ever in life missed an election, they've become not much of an event -- just what one does as a citizen. After all these cycles it is a non-event in my life despite the excitement experienced with each election.

In a few minutes the conversation began to flow as if rehearsed. The questions were real because his face told me that my answers were important to him. We talked with two cameras recording our conversation for almost a half-hour. The time flew by. The passion that underlies my civic life kicked in at some point and we connected, my young interviewer and me. I wanted him to know how much the electoral process meant to me and it was clear that he was interested in knowing. Would that it were always so easy to span time and generations. It comes rarely, but I felt it in those moments. I've certainly experienced times when the spark refused to ignite and words held little life. Not this time. This time the words met in mid-air ... .

I learned from the director as we were leaving that this was a community arts project that involves pairing adults and adolescents in these unedited conversations around the issues of the electoral process and that sometime in October -- prior to the November general elections -- under the sponsorship of the Richmond Main Street Initiative those interviews will be blown up and projected against the walls of adjacent buildings in the old downtown in a gigantic multimedia public art display.

I had no idea.

It was an memorable experience for me -- and maybe for Rodrigo as well -- an experience well worth sharing with the community.

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