It’s election season here in California, with our Feb. 5 primary less than a month away. Some of you may have noticed Barack Obama’s improbable rise to the lead, and you probably wondered what the excitement is all about. As one of his volunteers here in Santa Barbara, all I can tell you is I support Barack Obama because I have a personal desire for change – a desire that has driven me for the first time in my life to actively volunteer in a political campaign. Democrats, Republicans and Independents: I hope you’ll join me.

I grew up in a very Republican area of California, where a staunchly conservative and Roman Catholic family raised me. As any child will, I picked up my youthful opinions from whatever was within earshot or eyeshot. From the way people talked, it became clear: If I were to ever find myself in a room with a Democrat or a liberal, I should hold my breath and move in a safe and orderly manner toward the nearest exit.

Before coming to UCSB, I’d never really met a Democrat, so I didn’t really know what to expect. Looking back, I honestly expected to attend class here at UCSB with throngs of stoned and unwashed hippies. Meanwhile, my friends and family practically began to mourn me as a lost and soon-to-be-liberal cause. They expected that before long I would find myself randomly quoting Marx while sipping lattes as I hugged the nearest tree.

Don’t tell my parents I said this, but they were right. Soon I was expressing myself as if I knew exactly what was wrong with the world, and I didn’t miss any opportunity to name those responsible – big businesses, mindless consumers, corrupt Republicans in general and George W. Bush in particular.

Nevertheless, it eventually occurred to me that despite all the changes in my politics, something had stayed strangely the same. Even though I’d gone from ardent Republican to dedicated Democrat, mine was still that tired, old “Us vs. Them” mentality. As a Republican, I had learned to view Democrats as an enemy to be fought no matter the cost, and certainly never to be trusted. As a Democrat, I behaved exactly the same way. I finally realized that if I was serious about changing the world in a society where everyone’s voice should be heard, I would have to learn how to understand and take into account even the views of those with whom I most sincerely and passionately disagreed.

As this realization settled in, I began to shout less and listen more. I was no longer content trying to change the world from the comfort of my armchair, critical of everything and everyone but myself. I didn’t want to just be against something – now I wanted to stand for something. I wanted to stand with someone, but someone different, not the usual crowd of politicians making policies as though half the country’s population didn’t exist, or worse – didn’t matter.

I found that someone different in Ill. Sen. Barack Obama. Sen. Obama understands creating real change in this country requires a break from conventional Washington thinking, the sort of polarizing politics that pits the country against itself and accomplishes nothing. He talks of hope for better days to come, yet his is not an empty rhetoric of hope, the sort of political prayer where politicians talk about change and expect change while engaging in exactly the same sort of politics as before. No, Barack Obama actually walks the walk of his hopeful talk. He has shown time and again he is willing and able to work even with those he most disagrees with in order to create the change this country needs.

More importantly, Barack Obama knows changing the world requires the hard work of people like you and me, people who are driven by that most noble of ideas: “I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper.” My brothers and sisters, let us come together and elect Barack Obama to lead us into the better days ahead. Together we can bend the long arc of history towards justice.