Before he took office in January, Barack Obama must have known that people from all over the country — and the world — would be eager to give him advice on how to do his job. What he surely did not expect was that some of the most direct, humorous and creative words of wisdom would come from within the walls of a quirky pirate goods store in the Mission District of San Francisco.
Behind the doors of 826 Valencia, an after-school tutoring center and pirate retailer, students aged 6 to 14 penned letters on everything from gay marriage and immigration to banning homework and helping the poor, all in an effort to help set the new president’s agenda. The campaign started as a writing exercise for students, but it quickly evolved into a more substantial project. And that ultimately became the new book, “Thanks and Have Fun Running the Country.—
After witnessing the enthusiasm among Mission District residents when Obama was elected last November, “Thanks and Have Fun Running the Country— editor and 826 Valencia programs director Jory John initiated the letter-writing campaign as a way to keep the group’s young students engaged.
“We really did see it with pretty much every age,— he said. “I’ve never seen that sort of excitement with kids that young.—
826 Valencia is part of 826 National, an organization that teaches writing skills to kids in neighborhoods “that could use some more help,— as John described them. Local programs in San Francisco, New York, Boston, Chicago and Seattle are strategically located so they are close to where the students live and go to school, but are also safe for walking. Each center is tucked within a quirky store that not only appeals to the students coming there for tutoring, but also generates revenue for the organization’s programs. The offbeat shops include the pirate haven in San Francisco and a superhero store in Brooklyn.
When Obama’s election became official, John witnessed a new level of political engagement taking root along Valencia Street, for which his center is named. When he learned that similar conversations were taking place at other 826 National locations, he decided to use the project to get the voices of kids from all over to the attention of the president.
“I thought we were just going to send a stack of letters to the White House,— John said. But as letters from the 826 Valencia students, as well as those from sister centers in places like Seattle and Boston, came in, John said he and his colleagues “realized we had something really original on our hands and could do something bigger with it.—
Some of the letters in “Thanks and Have Fun Running the Country— are laugh-out-loud funny, marked by childlike fixations on junk food and a resistance to homework.
Though many of the letters implore the president to fix the economy and stop global warming, Chicago student Amir Abdelhadi recommends filling the White House with chocolate and gravy and feeding foreign visitors mashed potatoes and root beer. As for decorating tips, the 6-year-old suggests a couch made of pudding — to be eaten with a giant spoon — and a pizza carpet. Both would be replaced by real furniture after being consumed.
Heaven Willis, also from Chicago, offers a list of 10 potential priorities. The socially conscious 13-year-old’s list includes eating a doughnut (or two), reading the teenage novel “Elsewhere,— banning the right to bear arms and passing a law allowing gay marriage.
After advising Obama to allow people one more pack of cigarettes before banning them entirely, 12-year-old Ray Crespo of Boston writes, “You can have a little bit of beer, but not too much — don’t go wild or anything.—
Enjoyable as many of the letters are, some strike a more somber note as students ask Obama to amend immigration laws so their fathers can come back to the United States or ask for help to pay family bills.
“My family needs help with everything: health care, insurance, and making schools affordable. I want to be able to go to college in about four years,— writes Miguel Villalobos, a 13-year-old from San Francisco.
Such letters give a personal, sobering look at the current economic crisis in a way that many news reports and political speeches cannot.
Danny Giday in Seattle asks the president to establish more scholarship programs so people like his friend Mike have a chance to go to college.
“My friend Mike, who is twenty-one, didn’t go to college because he can’t afford it,— Giday writes. “He would be able to get the scholarship.—
The boy closes with a personal request for financial aid. “Could you give me a full scholarship to a college in Seattle?— he asks.
Each letter is a unique look at how children around the country view the Obama presidency and the way they view the current events they hear so much about, whether it is in school or from friends and relatives. Despite the difficulties these children see their families facing, there is reason to believe they want to be engaged and have big plans for their futures, at least according to John.
“These kids want to be president again. This is really tremendous for them,— he said.
Perhaps not all of them aspire to the presidency, but they do hope Obama will help them get wherever it is they want to be.
“My neighbors think that I am just another Latino that is going to ruin her life. But they are so wrong,— writes Yoselin Teresa Martinez Xonthe from San Francisco, who hopes to become a veterinarian or a zoologist. “I want to go to great high schools. I want to graduate from college and show my mom that I worked my butt off.—
In an effort to keep kids thinking about politics and current issues, 826 National is maintaining a blog where kids can post their thoughts on a regular basis. The blog will appear on 826national.org, as well as the site for Powell’s Books.
The continuing conversation about Obama’s presidency and the policies that affect their families ties back to 826 National’s mission.
“We look for ways to keep them engaged, to be civic-minded,— John said. We’re trying to be models here and teach them responsibility.—