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An Ethic of Service

The First Lady addressed the Greater DC Cares Annual Business and Non-profit Philanthropy Summit yesterday, where she thanked community leaders for their hard work, but let them know that their work is far from over. Earlier today, the President announced United We Serve, a call to action for all Americans to volunteer this summer, and in these challenging times, help rebuild the foundation of America.
The First Lady explained that in facing these challenges, we have an unprecedented opportunity to spark volunteerism as Americans are eager to do their part to rebuild their communities:
As has been the case throughout our history, communities are built and rebuilt by regular people:  folks working in businesses, philanthropists, foundations, and volunteers, all of them coming together to find solutions to these types of challenges.  And during this time we are going to need everyone, and that -- everyone to rededicate themselves to this type of community-building, and we're going to need people to basically take hold of this kind of ethic of service and make a personal commitment to helping get this country back on the right direction.
And I believe that we're in a unique moment in history.  Maybe you're seeing the same thing.  I'm feeling it as I'm traveling not just around D.C. but around the country.  But people really want to get involved.  They really want to.  They're looking for a way to turn their frustration, excitement, anxiety into action.  And the recent passage of the Serve America Act -- the federal government is tripling its contribution to volunteerism, and people are responding to that investment.  Applications, as we're seeing for service opportunities, are up by record numbers, and that's a very good thing.
And with the knowledge that, as Barack said throughout his campaign and throughout his presidency, that ordinary people can do some extraordinary things if they're given the proper tools and support, my husband is asking us to come together to help lay a new foundation for growth.
Greater DC Cares is the largest and leading coordinator of volunteerism and service in the DC area. The First Lady told the crowd of 500 civic leaders that she understands the challenges associated with non-profit work through her own first-hand experience running an organization in Chicago:
When I look over this room, I think about my days when I worked at Public Allies.  I headed that program in Chicago before I moved into the university, and that organization allowed me to work with more than 30 Chicago organizations every single year, placing AmeriCorps members with them so that they could expand their services.  We placed young people with organizations working on education and youth development groups, environmental groups, neighborhood, economic development groups, all types of groups all throughout the city of Chicago.  And I saw first-hand through that work the variety of neighborhood and community needs that exist out there, and how hard it is for these groups to meet that need with the resources that they have.  So they were excited to get these young people.  However naïve and untrained they were, they ate these Allies up.
And we recruited some of the best kids across the city of Chicago.  For every young person that we recruited at a great institution like Northwestern, DePaul or the University of Chicago -- we even recruited kids from Harvard Law School -- we also recruited someone from Cabrini Green or from Little Village or North Lawndale.  And through my work with Public Allies I realized that the next generation of leaders was just as likely to come from poor and working-class neighborhoods as they were to come from some of the top colleges around the country.
She explained that Public Allies also taught her that all communities are filled with assets that should be recognized and mobilized by bringing together young people from diverse backgrounds. Working together to realize the needs of communities gives young people the ability to build relationships no matter what community they’re in, an essential life skill. "These are the gifts we can give people through service," the First Lady said.
The First Lady concluded her remarks by telling community leaders to support one another, and to capitalize on Americans’ desire for engagement by providing meaningful volunteer opportunities that can not only change the way the nation views service, but also how the world views us:
We need foundations and philanthropists to provide the integral support for our community organizations.  But we also need those community organizations to provide support for all these volunteers we're recruiting now.  We need to harness this amazing amount of goodwill that we're generating through this administration in a way that ensures that we serve all Americans to the best of our ability.
So once again, we're going to need you.  As tired as you may be, we're going to need you.  So that's why I'm here -- (laughter) -- to say thank you, because we're going to be tapping you more and more.  (Applause.)  Now is the time that we have to connect with one another and share good ideas and hold each other up and give each other that private counsel when the dollars are running short and hope is a little harder to find.