What Now? A Call to Service

One of the best proposals of the Obama-Biden Administration is to create incentives and programs that expand voluntary public service and strengthen the non-profit and civil sectors.  My main quibbles are that bringing private sector financing to non-profits leaves the latter beholden to private sector demands and models, even when they don’t necessarily fit; and that public service should be mandatory for able-bodied residents and citizens.  But hey, they’re off to a great start.  My partner is a VISTA alum and I credit the Army as one key force in getting my dad up and out of poverty.  We like what we see from Obama-Biden.

This call to service is imperative after the disastrous Bush years.  It’s also feasible.  As one of the major organizers in the Obama campaign – the legendary Mashall Ganz – put it: a primary legacy of the campaign is a generation of mostly 20-somethings who now possess basic political organizing skills.  This is tremendous, and we need to channel this skill and commitment into sustained community activism now.

I’ve been debating with an MIT planning friend about Ganz’s emphasis on youth, organizing and their relationship to the Obama campaign.  Ganz was drawn to Obama’s campaign because it was “values-based” versus “issues-based,” including the candidate’s personal narrative.  This was one of the things I didn’t like about Obama, and I’m grappling with how Ganz proposes we now re-direct organizing capacity that was centered around a personal value narrative towards specific social problems in the U.S.  As he put it, it is “not clear” to him how Obama plans to govern.  That he nonetheless worked energetically to get this man into office slightly boggles my mind.

In a recent e-mail to said friend I wrote:

My concern…is the “what now” – i.e., how do we shift people’s foci from Obama to “issues.” I didn’t get from Ganz how that happens, given the organizing for BO was “values-based,” with the strategic “issue” being to get him elected.

There’s a real difference b/w electoral politics and advocacy re: equity or issues (e.g., environment, etc.). I’m curious about what kind of awareness exists among this young generation to take their apparent new found skills and keep fighting the good right re: poverty, green development, what have you. It’s not at all clear to me that this shift will happen…the Obama campaign both created AND extracted organizing capacity – from communities and issues where it is truly needed.

One of the things I like most about Obama is his call for service to the country. I am cautiously optimistic that he will continue to lead this generation of young people to serve either through Americorps, the military, or just by being more active citizens (which, from what I understand, that generation already is). But I also hear that young people today are more compliant and comfortable with the system, more of the “inside” gamers, if you will. So where does the pushback come from for Obama within our camp (rather than from the 46% who voted for McCain)?”

I’m reading through Obama’s urban policy proposals and his “Women” page at change.gov.  I’ll spare you the critiques now during the Friday afternoon lull.  But as I go through them I’m thinking, how do we connect these young Obama upstarts to the perennial problem of poverty, rising social immobility, a chronic lack of affordable housing, and on-going oppression of the poor, especially women, people of color and the urban poor?  These are my issues, and I’d love a little army of Obama campaign alum to fight for economic justice and equitable development.  Remind me to send the transition team a note on this.


2 Responses to “What Now? A Call to Service”

  1. 1 wilsonrofishing
    November 7, 2008 at 7:26 pm

    I disagree a bit with your take on the Obama community service plan. Specifically, the government mandate for students to serve is a little bit over the top. Don’t get me wrong, I think doing things to encourage volunteerism and public service is great, but mandates are a bit disturbing, don’t you think? I discuss this issue a bit here. Cheers.

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