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Annette John-Hall: Looking forward after quite a year

Wow. It's been quite a year. Talk about ups and downs - mostly downs. We've endured a mind-numbing recession, a polarizing back-and-forth on health care, and two endless, taxing wars.

Wow. It's been quite a year.

Talk about ups and downs - mostly downs.

We've endured a mind-numbing recession, a polarizing back-and-forth on health care, and two endless, taxing wars.

We've watched Sarah Palin go rogue, Michael Vick go free, and Tiger Woods go under.

We've seen Mayor Nutter go green, Vince Fumo go to jail, and Philadelphians go straight to the streets, protesting the closure of an institution they held most dear.

No, not the Spectrum. I'm talking about the Free Library branches.

And to think the year started off on such a high.

In January, I stood among euphoric millions in Washington and witnessed the historic inauguration of Barack Obama, the nation's first African American president.

African Americans waving flags, finally recognized as full participants, standing side by side with people of every stripe. I remember sensing that we'd taken an enormous step on the road toward racial progress.

Adversity and grace

But the nation's euphoria was short-lived. The reality was, it didn't take long for the mess the president inherited to hit home.

I stood by as friends lost their jobs left and right. Where was their bailout?

Unemployment skyrocketed to a 30-year high. Even my own beloved industry has been teetering. I barely dodged the joblessness bullet myself.

Yet I'm still here, grateful to be able to share stories about people who have demonstrated far more resilience, compassion, and grace than I ever could muster.

There was Ted Canada, the SEPTA bus driver and father of nine who lost three loved ones in June when a speeding, fleeing car plowed over his daughter and two granddaughters, and their 7-year-old neighbor, in Feltonville.

That raised to five the number of Canada's family members killed in tragic circumstances over the last two years.

Still, he continues his work as a community activist with Men United for a Better Philadelphia.

"I can't give up," he told me. "I have to do what God put me on this Earth to do."

Near death, life anew

As does Sharon McGinley. It took a near-death experience for the Ardmore socialite to realize that her true purpose wasn't just, as she put it, standing at the plate, but taking a swing.

Which propelled McGinley to launch Eddie's House, a transitional program designed to support kids who have aged out of foster care.

"Because I wasn't afraid to die, I realized I'd been afraid to live," McGinley said. "What was I waiting for?"

And because of McGinley's commitment, Eddie Lewis - the program's namesake, whose kidneys all but shut down after the beatings he endured from his foster family - can pay it forward.

"If anything," Lewis said, McGinley "is letting me live my dreams of helping a child."

Our oft-mentioned village thrives on the work of both activists and sustainers. Like 90-year-old Sydney King, who guided a whole generation of black girls to maturity by teaching them dance. And Sonia Sanchez, the internationally acclaimed poet whose mere presence in Germantown for over 30 years has itself been a stabilizing force.

Of course, 2009 has also been a year marred by intolerance. The Valley swim club. South Philadelphia High School.

I realize the problem of difference, of bias, of - dare I say - racism won't be solved tomorrow, or in 2010 for that matter. But as long as people make the choice to listen and learn from other points of view, I'm hopeful.

Because you'd better believe I'll continue to write about it - our missteps and right steps.

Which is sure to continue to prompt letters from readers, like the one who asks about the whereabouts of "Jesse and Al" whenever I write about a racial incident. Or not.

And there's the reader who rants weekly, calling me the "Inquirer's in-house racist writer, who defends all these black crum bums," no matter what I write. Or when I read e-mails from cruel souls like the one who ridiculed little girls in tiaras who reveled in Disney's first black princess. No one would ever marry one of those black girls, he spewed.

No, sadly, we're not there yet.

Still, the positive always outweighs the vile.

Even if I can't respond to every e-mail, letter or phone calls, I hear you.

I hear Millie from Philly, who always comments on cultural and social issues, and offers new ideas to chew on.

There's my Hatboro caller who never leaves her name but always seems to leave a message of encouragement when I need it. Just this week, she wished me a happy new year. "Keep up the good work. No need to call back."

And one of my most gratifying e-mails came recently from Charles T. Graham of Philadelphia, after my column about Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's dismissive attitude toward Asian students at South Philadelphia High: "As a daily reader who rarely agrees with the views of columnist Annette John-Hall, I now publicly take back every unpleasant word I ever said."

That's all I can ask for. You don't have to agree with me all the time, or at all, but we all have an obligation to listen to each other's viewpoints.

After all, we're all in this together.

Here's to mostly ups in 2010.