Democratic Presidential Candidate Barack Obama in a terrific speech today at Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa rallied Americans to action and promised that the government would create more opportunity for such national and community service through 250,000 AmeriCorps members, through an Energy Corps and a Classroom Corps, by doubling the Peace Corps [with Harris Wofford by his side], by strengthening YouthBuild and by dramatically expanding the role of service learning in middle and high schools across the country. Obama also pledged the government to help spur social entrepreneurship.
It looks like a strong plan, although it would be nice to see Obama committing that the corps in which Americans serve will be diverse as this could be a very effective way at starting to break down Americans’ discomfort with those who are unlike them in some way, in the same way that the military has effectively done that. For more on the challenges in the short-term of integrating diversity and social cohesion, see here or here.
Obama indicated that it was through his own service as a community organizer, against the naysaying of elders who told him that he couldn’t make a difference and should make money instead, that Obama says he discovered his own dreams, found a church he felt he belonged to, discovered the meaning of his citizenship and understood how his “own improbably story fit into a larger American story”.
Obama went on:
“In America each of us seeks our own dreams, but the sum of those dreams must be greater than ourselves. Because the America we inherited is the legacy of those who struggled, and those who served in so many ways, before us.
It’s the legacy of a band of unlikely patriots who overthrew the tyranny of a King.
It’s the legacy of abolitionists who stood up, and soldiers who fought for a more perfect union.
It’s the legacy of those who started to teach in our schools and tend to the sick in our cities; who laid the rails and volunteered to uphold the law as America moved west.
It’s the legacy of men who faced the Depression by putting on the uniform of the Civilian Conservation Corps; of women who worked on that Arsenal of Democracy and built the tanks and ships and bomber aircraft to fight fascism.
It’s the legacy of those women’s suffragists and freedom riders who stood up for justice; and young people who answered President Kennedy’s call to go forth in a Peace Corps.
The sacrifices made by previous generations have never been easy. But America is a great nation precisely because Americans have been willing to stand up when it was hard; to serve on stages both great and small; to rise above moments of great challenge and terrible trial.
One of those moments took place on September 11, 2001. Whether you lived in Manhattan or here in Mount Vernon, you felt the pain and loss of that day not just as an individual, but as an American. That’s why we lined up to give blood. That’s why we held vigils and flew flags. That’s why we rallied behind our President. We had a chance to step into the currents of history. We were ready to answer a new call for our country. But the call never came. Instead, we were asked to go shopping, and to prove our patriotism by supporting a war in Iraq that should never have been authorized, and never been waged.
We have lost precious time. Our nation is less secure and less respected in the world. Our energy dependence has risen, and so has the specter of climate change. More of our children have been left behind. Instead of a call to unity, we got a political strategy of division. The burden of service has fallen, more and more, on the brave men and women of our military who heroically serve tour after tour of duty in a war without end.”
Calling American people “the answer, not the problem”, he called on Americans to reject the cynics’ “soft sell of the status quo, the voice that tells you to settle because settling is not that bad.” And saying that America can bend history towards justice he reminded Americans of our common fate with the people of this world. “Make no mistake: our destiny as Americans is tied up with one another. If we are less respected in the world, then you will be less safe. If we keep paying dictators to fill up our gas tanks, then those oceans are going to rise. If we can’t give our kids a world-class education, then our economy is going to fall behind….And that’s how it should be. It is time to recapture that sense of a common purpose: I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper.”