By Barack Obama for Time.com
I started my career more than two decades ago as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, working with churches to help neighborhoods that had been devastated by plant closings. Block by block, we fought to create job-training programs, improve housing conditions and help people live their lives with some measure of dignity. And eventually, I realized that I wasn’t just helping other people — through service, I also found a community that embraced me, a church to belong to and the direction I’d been seeking. Through service, I found that my own story fit into a larger American story.
It’s an experience that Americans of all ages and backgrounds have every day on battlefields and in classrooms, food pantries and even corporate boardrooms. Last year 62 million Americans gave 8 billion hours of service. Back in January, I joined (with Harlem’s) Colin Powell to ask Americans to give back on Martin Luther King Jr. Day; the result was the largest ever turnout for that day of service.
For decades, leaders from both parties have sought to promote that ethic of service: President Richard Nixon expanded opportunities for senior citizens to serve; President George H.W. Bush called for volunteers to serve as “points of light” in their communities; President Bill Clinton established the Corporation for National and Community Service. And on Sept. 11, 2008, in the midst of a spirited general-election campaign, Senator John McCain and I put aside our differences and came together in New York City to issue a joint call to public service. It was an important reminder that while our politics is often focused on what divides us, there is much more that unites us.
In this spirit, Congress is now poised to send me bipartisan legislation — the Serve America and GIVE Acts — that, if passed, will usher in a new era of service in this new century.
This legislation will help connect people at all stages of life with opportunities to serve. It will establish an army of 250,000 Americans a year who are willing to serve part time or full time working to meet our most pressing challenges, from modernizing our schools to building homes for those in need. And this legislation will provide new support for social entrepreneurship, identifying and nurturing promising new service programs around the country.
Members of Congress from across the political spectrum — from Senators Orrin Hatch and Mike Enzi and Representative Howard (Buck) McKeon to Senators Ted Kennedy and Barbara Mikulski and Representative George Miller — have pledged their support for this legislation. I urge Congress to follow their lead and move quickly to pass it so that I can sign it into law. And I pledge that my Administration will also do its part to help more Americans serve their communities. At this time of economic crisis, when so many people are in need of help, this work could not be more urgent.
But we know that government alone is not the answer to the challenges we face. Yes, our government must rebuild our schools, but we also need people to serve as mentors and tutors in those schools. Yes, our government must modernize our health-care system, but we also need people to volunteer in our hospitals and communities to care for the sick and help people lead healthier lives. Yes, our government must maintain the finest military in the history of the world, but that is only possible if brave men and women across America sign up to serve in that military.
And while our government can provide every opportunity imaginable for us to serve our communities, it is up to each of us to seize those opportunities. To do our part to lift up our fellow Americans. To realize our own true potential by hitching our wagon to something bigger than ourselves.
In the end, I have no illusions about the magnitude of the challenges we face. But I have no doubt that we can meet them if we each do our part. So I urge you to get involved, right now, at this defining moment in history. I’m not going to tell you what your role should be; that’s for you to discover. And I won’t promise that it will always be easy or that you’ll accomplish all your goals all at once.
But as I learned in the shadow of an empty steel plant more than two decades ago, while you can’t necessarily bend history to your will, you can do your part to see that, in the words of Dr. King, it “bends toward justice.” So I hope that you will stand up and do what you can to serve your community, shape our history and enrich both your own life and the lives of others across this country.