George Family Foundation fellow
I stepped out of my yellow cab and shook the hand of my driver, an Iraqi American who has driven NYC cabs for 15 years and proudly told me about his daughter who aspires to be a doctor. It was my first time at Columbia University. I paused to take in the beauty of its iconic library before following a bevy of baby-blue-shirted volunteers to the student center. A young woman met me at the security check-point. She checked my name against a list and then looked up eagerly. “You are a young leader,” she said, “Usher is waiting for you on the fifth floor.” I’m 29, in my last year of graduate school, and couldn’t even name an Usher song (then, not now). So began ServiceNation, an inspirational two-day Summit to celebrate and advance public service at home and abroad.
ServiceNation opened with back-to-back interviews with John McCain and Barack Obama. Prior to the main event a number of luminaries spoke eloquently of public service. Many invoked the wisdom of historical figures. I was especially struck by the presentation of New York Governor David Paterson, who is blind and had memorized his remarks. Paraphrasing Booker T. Washington, the Governor concluded, “if you want to lift yourself up, lift someone else up.” Another speaker referenced De Tocqueville, the French scholar who came to America in the 1800s and wrote of the “volunteer associations” that help make America exceptional. These associations are often effective because they happen from the bottom-up.
These comments resonated with my own service in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya. Eight years ago Kenyan colleagues and I founded a non-profit called Carolina For Kibera (CFK) to use sports as a vehicle to prevent violence and promote leadership and holistic, grassroots development. The key to this service, the primary reason we have been successful as an international NGO, is that the community itself owns and directs it. Some of the poor have figured out for themselves the key elements for solving their problems, but they don’t have the material resources to implement them. We need to find more effective ways to empower leaders in disenfranchised communities at home and abroad.
In 2006 Barack Obama came to Kibera and spent time with some CFK youth in our community center. Then he publicly took an HIV/AIDS test with his wife Michelle. This was my first personal glimpse into his leadership and character. Obama is a great listener, not just a great orator. His presence and actions in Kibera helped break down powerful and at times deadly misconceptions about HIV/AIDS. So I was eager to see Obama again in person and to hear more about his concept of “active citizenship.” This includes a plan to increase the number of service opportunities for young Americans and to spur new innovations among social entrepreneurs.
Additionally, both candidates called for Ivy League universities such as Columbia to bring back ROTC. During the Vietnam War many of these schools, including Harvard, disbanded their on-campus ROTC programs. As a veteran I was pleased to hear both candidates make these remarks. Many current students at schools like Columbia and Harvard should become leaders in our society. We would be better served if these students had more exposure to, and understanding of, military service. As Obama noted, ROTC and military service is not for everyone. But they need to be understood and appreciated by our future leaders.
Later that evening I visited two high school friends who live near Battery Park. I got out of the cab, looked up, and froze before two gigantic pillars of light soaring into the night sky, illuminating faint clouds drifting by. I imagined the spirits of Americans embodied in those lights as they stretched to the heavens. My chest clenched. Seven years ago to that day I was a Marine Second Lieutenant training in the forests of Quantico, Virginia. We watched 9-11 unfold on small TVs in our barracks. I worried about the same two high school friends who at the time worked near ground zero. They made it out of lower Manhattan and called me that night. I spent the next five years on deployments fighting terrorists and working to enhance security in ten countries around the world.
Part of the problem America has faced since 9-11 is that we have responded to complex problems like terrorism through limited means such as military force. We need all aspects of America’s power in order to make a more just and equitable world. One element in the calling of ServiceNation is to commemorate 9-11 through a “Day of Action,” a day where Americans pause and spend time helping build communities and promoting tolerance and peace at home and abroad. It is heartening and reassuring to know that this is one proposal to which both candidates agree.
Rye Barcott is currently studying at Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School as a George Family fellow and previously served as a Reynolds Foundation Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship.