President Barack Obama has made an impressive start in his first 100 days in office. On April 22, he issued a call for national service to our nation’s young people. He signed into law the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, tripling the size of the AmeriCorps program, and called on Americans to “volunteer time to improve their communities.” He urged Americans to restore parks, tutor children, and help communities struck by natural disasters. The president has also called for a day of national service to mark the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
The president’s call to national service is impressive and laudable. But we should all ask, Does it go far enough? For my generation, the call to service represented by the Peace Corps, Vista, and other government programs was inspiring, but at the same time it was daunting for the poor and working class kids I grew up with in the American South. People in our communities were fighting desperately for the right to have a decent education and they expected us to keep our eyes on that prize so that we could use our knowledge to lift our communities out of poverty. As we fulfilled the goal of obtaining undergraduate and advanced degrees, many of us asked if it was enough to make our way into the powerful institutions that had so much influence on American life. Some of us felt that it was enough, and found many ways to give back to our communities. Others felt it wasn’t enough as they watched some communities remain mired in poverty despite the best efforts of more enlightened government and individual programs.
This generation of students has the great opportunity to re-think ideas about public national service. They must ask harder questions than the generations that preceded them; they must be more creative, innovative, and courageous as they answer the president’s call to service with new ideas about how to increase, sustain, and energize the desires of so many Americans to use their public service to the end of re-redressing the fundamental problems of our society. Given the commitment that Harvard students have already made to public service, I fully expect to see them take the lead in pushing us all to the next level. I hope that President Obama will continue to find new ways to inspire them and direct their creative energies.