November 20, 2008

Commentary on the Election and Service

“I won’t just ask for your vote as a candidate. I will ask for your service and active citizenship when I am President of the United States” President Elect Barack Obama.

The words above are pretty profound, matching the intensity of those uttered by a President of a past generation, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” We just reached a conclusion of an election where two candidates who differed on many issues both embraced one common purpose: the importance of service. Both candidates are role models for this call having performed extraordinary acts of service in their own right. Both embraced the ideal in their vision for the country. At the Republican Convention during Senator McCain’s speech, signs with a single word “SERVICE” flashed across the hall as supporters of Senator Obama held a similar participation in the country’s renewal. Both also cosponsored the Kennedy-Hatch Serve America Act, which would broadly expand service opportunities for people of all ages and interests.

With these signs, now as President Obama takes office those advocates for service have plenty to smile about and bare a great deal of responsibility in ensuring the promises come to fruition. Indeed, for those of us who advocate for service, this is not a pet cause—it is our one chance to step up and do our part to save the nation and world facing crisis in many forms. Here we need to be as thoughtful as we are passionate in pushing this cause forward. Where are our skills in service best suited? Where can we make the largest impact? Most importantly perhaps, how do we make this something real and lasting?

The challenges we face will not be solved in a year or two—they require a longer term culture of service in this country. The notions that the President-elect espouses of “I am my brother’s keeper. I am my sister’s keeper” or “E Pluribus Unum... out of many, one” aren’t things that will magically appear within the American psyche. Indeed, it goes without saying that problems cannot wait and that the various corps Kennedy-Hatch creates and that President-elect Obama has proposed are essential at meeting the immediate nature of our challenges. However, to deal with the long term nature of these challenges, service-learning must have a large role. Today 30% of all students and 50% of all minority students will drop out of school citing lack of relevance as their biggest reason. Those who don’t drop out are no less hungry for meaning in their education. The choice today is not between service and learning, it is service-learning. It is about an education that makes you a stronger, more adept problem solver, as it empowers us to become a more engaged citizen.

The unfortunate events of the last several years have created a window of opportunity for us. Such windows are wonderful in that they can give us hope for opportunities previously out of the realm of possibility. Yet these windows are open for a short while before they close. As advocates of service, we need to seize this moment to do something extraordinary for our country and world. This new beginning which will start with a new President and the Kennedy-Hatch bill, will lead to our authentic labor and in the process renew this country for a better day. As we seize this opportunity let us heed the President-elect’s words as we move forward, “We are the change we’ve been waiting for.”

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