Diné student introduces First Lady
By Cindy Yurth
C alling the First Couple "people like me," Fort Lewis College Student body President Byron J. Tsabetsaye introduced Michelle Obama to an enthusiastic audience of about 3,500 at the college's Whalen Gym Wednesday. The First Lady was in town campaigning for her husband.
Tsabetsaye, a 27-year-old English major who traces both Navajo and Zuni blood, said it was President Obama who inspired him to seek his elected office at Fort Lewis.
"I wasn't always into politics growing up," Tsabetsaye told the standing-room-only crowd, some of whom had stood in line three hours to get in.
"I grew up in Arizona on the Navajo reservation." The mention of the reservation drew loud applause from the several hundred Native Americans in attendance.
"I didn't know there was a possibility for me as a kid to hold elected office," Tsabetsaye continued, "or even be in a leadership role. All that changed in 2008" with the election of a person of color as President.
Tsabetsaye, who is Ashiihi born for Tachiinii, called Barack and Michelle Obama "people who, like me, didn't come from a privileged background" and said they "inspired me to reach higher."
The Fort Lewis senior originally from Red Lake, Ariz., said he was inspired enough in 2008 to work on Obama's campaign. "I knocked on doors," he said. "I made phone calls. I talked to anyone who would listen about why we needed to elect Barack Obama President."
After catching the volunteer "bug," he said, he signed up for AmeriCorps, where he became convinced that "our country is better off when more people are involved."
And that, he added, "is what the next 27 days (until the election) are all about."
Tsabetsaye closed with urging the crowd to "Vote! Vote early! Vote by mail!" and describing the First Lady as a "role model for me and young people across the country."
Obama responded by giving Tsabetsaye, who at over six feet tall was slightly shorter than her, a warm hug.
Obama immediately endeared herself to Durangatans by calling the countryside "beautiful" and stating, "I don't want to leave."
She painted her husband as a person from a middle-class, single-parent family who "turned down high-paying jobs and spent his career fighting to get folks back to work in struggling communities."
"Our families weren't asking for much," she said. "They didn't mind that others had much more than they did. They got by by simply believing in that promise that if you worked hard, you would make a decent living for your family. And once you finally walked through that door of opportunity, you didn't slam it shut behind you."
Obama kept her message positive for the most part, taking a few subtle digs at Republican budget-cutting measures.
"We all know good and well that cutting 'Sesame Street' is no way to balance our budget," she said.
For the most part, she touted her husband's record, asking the crowd to think back to 2008, when Obama was elected.
"Our economy was on the brink of collapse," she said. "Mortgages were underwater. We were losing 800,000 jobs a month…
"Your president went to work."
She pointed to the rescue of the auto industry, health care reform, expanding the Pell grant program for low-income college students, enacting the Dream Act, abolishing "Don't Ask Don't Tell" and ending the war in Iraq.
However, she said, Barack Obama is "nowhere near satisfied."
"It takes longer than four years to finish rebuilding an economy," she told the crowd. "Are we going to turn around and go back? Are we going to watch everything we worked so hard for slip away? Or are we going to keep this country moving forward?"
The First Lady also talked about education, saying every child, no matter where he or she lives, should have access to first-rate schools.
That struck a chord with Betty Alexander, a Navajo campaign volunteer from Kirtland, N.M., who had taken unpaid leave from her job teaching kindergarten to hear Obama's speech.
Alexander said she's working to re-elect Obama because, like Tsabetsaye, she finds the First Couple so relatable.
"When she (Michelle Obama) talks about kids in poor neighborhoods like where she grew up in Chicago, I see a lot of our reservation kids in the same situation," she said. "I like the way she talks about everybody, all across the country, having the same opportunities."
Taking tickets at the door, 23-year-old Desiree Deschenie of Farmington admitted she had volunteered for the campaign mostly in the hope of seeing Michelle Obama. But, she said, she wouldn't have put in the hours if she didn't believe in the candidate. Besides, acting locally is simply following in the President's footsteps.
"I like that, way before 2008, he was a community organizer," she said. "Everything starts at the community level."