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Obama’s Call for Community Service Is Not Marxism

It's not "slavery" either — and the comparison insults one's intelligence.

by
Michele Catalano

Bio

November 13, 2008 - 12:00 am

Is community service synonymous with slavery? Whether that service is mandated or suggested, could it in any way be construed as enslaving citizens? This week, an acquaintance noted the “irony” that college students would be required by a black president to do community service. She then pointed out the 13th Amendment.

There were two things wrong with this statement. First, by the time she wrote it, it was already old news that Obama had backtracked on his mandatory community service requirement for students. The newer wording on the change.gov website:

The Obama administration will call on Americans to serve in order to meet the nation’s challenges. President-elect Obama will expand national service programs like AmeriCorps and Peace Corps and will create a new Classroom Corps to help teachers in underserved schools, as well as a new Health Corps, Clean Energy Corps, and Veterans Corps. Obama will call on citizens of all ages to serve America, by setting a goal that all middle school and high school students do 50 hours of community service a year and by developing a plan so that all college students who conduct 100 hours of community service receive a universal and fully refundable tax credit ensuring that the first $4,000 of their college education is completely free. Obama will encourage retiring Americans to serve by improving programs available for individuals over age 55, while at the same time promoting youth programs such as Youth Build and Head Start.

The other thing wrong with the woman’s quote — and the contention of some bloggers — is the equivalence of community service to slavery. One of these things is not like the other.

There are thousands upon thousands of high school and college students, as well as adults, doing some form of community service right now. Service to your community is an altruistic thing; it is a way of perhaps giving back to a community that has given to you. It is a way to reach out to a community, to help others who may not be as fortunate as you, to teach young adults about sharing, caring, and helping others, to do something out of the goodness of your heart that will benefit your community. This is not slavery. This is not forced labor. This is outreach. It represents values. Slavery is an act that benefits no one but the person who owns the slave; community service benefits both the giver and receiver and helps make the world a better place and leaves a general good feeling for everyone involved. It is not comparable to slavery.

There are already many high schools in the United States which require community service credit for graduation. Some schools require seniors to complete a project that includes some form of community outreach.

Obama would encourage a goal of 50 hours of community service for high school students. That’s 50 hours over the course of a year, hours that could be spent cleaning up a park, reading to the elderly, working in a soup kitchen, assisting developmentally disabled children, delivering meals, collecting clothing for shelters, or working with local community programs like Kiwanis. There are myriad ways in which the youth of America can get involved with their surrounding communities, providing a give and take that benefits both the student and the community at large.

On the college level, Obama’s plan would ensure a $4,000 tuition credit to students who complete 100 hours of community service a year. With the cost of college education soaring, that $4,000 is like a windfall to a college student. The student would be rewarded monetarily, but the reward of completing service toward the community is something that will stay with them, as well as the community, forever. Service to others is a lasting gift.

Right-leaning blogs are jumping on the Obama staff for so quickly going back on the wording of the community service statement — and some are still maintaining the “forced service” part. It’s interesting to see that instead of remarking on how the staff reacted quickly to negativity toward the requirement part of the service, people are claiming that he went back on a promise or broke his word. Not really. He heard criticism and responded to it. He would still like to see students entering into community service voluntarily but he rightfully took back the idea of service being mandatory. By arguing the nature of the wording and how/when the wording was changed, the blog pundits are taking the idea of community service and turning it into something to fight about. The blog posts enhanced with pictures of Stalin or a hammer and sickle are a nice touch, though.

It’s interesting how many right-leaning blogs are frowning upon the community service idea, though some are being thoughtful about it. Generally, people on the political right tend to belong to churches, and churches are big proponents of community service. So why the negativity? Many blogs are also equating Obama’s community service pitch with Rahm Emanuel’s:

When you choose to serve — whether it’s your nation, your community, or simply your neighborhood — you are connected to that fundamental American ideal that we want life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness not just for ourselves, but for all Americans. That’s why it’s called the American dream.

This is not socialism. This is not Marxism. This is the mark of a country that knows it needs to rely on those who can to help those who can’t. It’s the mark of a country that knows it needs to depend on its citizens to make their communities flourish. It’s taking the “ask not what your country can do for you” attitude and transforming it into smaller clusters, where we ask what we can do for those we live with and around, instead of waiting for people to do for us. It’s how communities become stronger, how they grow, and how a strong, giving community makes for a strong, giving nation.

Community service is not a dirty word; nor is it an idea to be tossed aside because you don’t like who is delivering the message about it. Encouraging our youth to take part in something selfless is encouraging them to be better human beings. What could be better for this country?

Michele Catalano lives, writes, and takes photographs on Long Island.
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