2008 UMC Exemplary Teacher Speech

The Rent We Pay for Living: The Obligation to Serve in the Twenty-First Century

Dr. Brenda Boudreau

2008 United Methodist Church Exemplary Teacher Award Recipient

Many people who call you the Me-Generation or the iGeneration or the Net Generation would like us to believe that you are so “unapologetically focused on the individual” that most of you cannot begin to entertain serving your communities or having  a real sense of civic responsibility . I’m here this morning to say that after coming to know you in these last four years, I don’t buy it.   As Barry Schwarz says in The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, “American culture has become more individualistic than it was, perhaps as a by-product of the desire to have control over every aspect of life. To be less individualistic --to tie oneself tightly into networks of family, friends, and community—is to be bound, to some degree, by the needs of family, friends, and community” (211).  I feel confident that this is a boundary all of you have willingly embraced and will continue to do so.   There is room for both the individual and the community in the APA definition of civic engagement which is defined as “individual and collective actions designed to identify and address issues of public concern. Civic engagement can take many forms, from individual voluntarism to organizational involvement to electoral participation. It can include efforts to directly address an issue, work with others in a community to solve a problem or interact with the institutions of representative democracy.” This is not necessarily an easy thing to do, but in two months  from now, two years from now, ten or twenty  years from now, I hope you will remember this challenge—to be more than your individual selves.

The word “service” is a complicated one because it really can mean so many different things. It is a part of McKendree mission statement: “to encourage broader vision, enriched purpose, engagement with community, commitment to responsible citizenship, openness to new ideas and dedication to lifelong learning.” Whew. What does this really mean to those of you sitting here who will be graduating in a few weeks?  Most of you were required to do 15 hours of community service a year as part of your academic scholarship. This might have meant going to a nursing home, an animal shelter, or the Christian Activities Center in E. St. Louis to name just a few. Some of you perhaps went on a mission trip with Rev. Tim Harrison to New Orleans or Mexico, or to Ecuador with Phil Whilhelm, or maybe you were part of the Alternative Spring Break Trip to Jamaica with Lyn Huxford and me and my husband Duane Olson. I know at times it was hard for some of you to fit these things into your incredibly busy schedules.   This will only get worse as you move out into the world, however. Even though we might recognize the importance of things like “engagement with community” and “responsible citizenship,” it’s easy to justify apathy and disengagement by saying, “I’m just too busy right now; when my life slows down, I’ll try to get more involved; the problem, however, is that your lives never will slow down.

We live in a world that encourages social isolation and disengagement sometimes. We work incredibly long hours, often involving long commutes to and from work, and often bring work home with us. We are caught up in Juliet Schor’s “cycle of work and spend,” feeling like we necessarily need to work more and willing to give up vacation time and time off to do so. We work more than any other industrialized nation, and we work 200 more hours a year today than we did 30 years ago (Schor 10).

You are facing tremendous challenges upon graduation. If you’re like me, you read the newspaper everyday or watch the news and feel anxious and worried about the future—your own and that of the United States, whether it be the international political stage or the state of the economy and whether or not you will be able to find long-term employment. These are problems that have, no doubt, touched us all personally through job loss, increasing debt, unemployment, or dwindling retirement accounts, our own or those of our families.   It’s hard sometimes not to want to withdraw from these problems and shut out the world behind our iPods, reality television shows and Facebook profile updates.   Service, however, can be one way to respond to the challenges facing us in the twenty-first century—the most personally rewarding and ultimately, the most long-lasting . As U.S. Rep George Miller, “History has shown that in times of crisis, Americans turn to service and volunteering for healing, for rebuilding and for hope. The spirit and generosity of the American people is one of our nation’s greatest assets.”

The recently passed H.R. 1388 or   Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, will tap into these assets and will empower President Barack Obama to encourage participation at a multitude of levels—he is expanding the Peace Corps, the Americorps program, and expanding opportunities for senior citizens to volunteer. He is also trying to encourage service at the elementary, middle and especially high school levels. Student loans for college students will also be tied to community service, whether it is helping other students achieve in schools, weatherizing homes and greening communities, or helping seniors live independently. Critics see this bill as mandatory volunteer work or forced service.   Obama, however,  genuinely believes that many people have the desire to serve their communities but are unsure how to do so—his proposal would offer a bridge between personal desire and community need. I agree with him.As Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund writes, people can let themselves be overwhelmed by the idea of “service”—rather than being a “big dog,” she recommends being a flea”: “You need to be a flea for justice bent on building a more decent home life, neighborhood, work place and America. Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation” (60). These are things we all want. There are even health benefits to volunteering, including a lower mortality rate, lower rates of depression and heart disease and an increased immune system. More importantly, however, service allows us to solve problems, improve lives, connect to others, whether we are cleaning up schools, mentoring students or building homes.

This is why the title of this speech is the “obligation” to serve, rather than an “invitation.” Upon graduation in a few weeks, I believe you have an obligation to take the idea of service and civic engagement to a broader level because your education has made you uniquely empowered to impact the world. This will start with reading newspapers, both national and local so that you understand the challenges facing you as a global citizen and as a local one.  Civic engagement may have to start small sometimes. Perhaps you don’t have the time to run for mayor of your town (yet), but you can show up at City Council meetings or discuss problems with your elected officials or write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. I hope that eventually some of you will find your way to the state or national stage and will find a way to address the systemic problems of racism or class inequality that are at the root of so many social problems, but don’t let the enormity of social problems deter you from working in whatever capacity you can to best use your talents and skills. Just because you can’t solve Global Warming doesn’t mean you shouldn’t recycle or change to energy efficient light bulbs.

We all have to find our own sphere of influence. For my husband, a committed environmentalist, this meant working with McKendree’s Green team to increase recycling and putting in a rain garden with students and other faculty last year. For me it has meant working with a women’s shelter and a homeless shelter and we have both been involved in the Big Brother program for the last three years.  My point is that you have to tie your service to the things you are passionate about and be willing to “walk the talk.” I hope you will all consider taking the Graduation Pledge sponsored by Phi Beda Lamda here on campus that asks you to take into account the social and environmental consequences of any job you consider and to try to improve these aspects of any organizations for which you work.”  (you can see Dr. Jean Sampson anytime before May 9 th if you’re interested).

You all represent the best of the best here at McKendree University. We send you out into the world extremely confident that you have developed the knowledge and skills you will need to be successful in your chosen careers, whether you are starting a job right away or are planning to go to graduate school.   I also hope for something more, however—namely that you will become active concerned citizens, civically engaged individuals who will see your role in society as being about more than achieving career success or financial success. Your individual self can never fully succeed if your community falters.  As Barack Obama writes in The Audacity of Hope, “Our individualism has always been bound by a set of communal values , the glue upon which every society depends….we value community, the neighborhood that expresses itself through raising the barn or coaching the soccer team. We value patriotism, a sense of duty and sacrifice on behalf of our nation” (85).   To serve then, really is the “rent we pay for living” as Edelman says. I’ll close with words from Dr. Cornel West: “We’ve forgotten that a rich life consists fundamentally of serving others, trying to leave the world a little better than you found it” (296).  Congratulations, good luck…and Don’t let us down.