Thoughts on the Duty and Power of Citizenship
The American stories that move
us start with ordinary people who are compelled to change their
country: a group of shopkeepers and blacksmiths who met at Liberty
Trees to overthrow an empire; a young lawyer from Springfield
who saved the Union and freed a people; a group of women who said,
“I’m as smart as he is, so I should vote,” and
revised the Constitution; a seamstress who refused to move and
thus launched the civil rights movement. Today, many young people
who love their country are giving up their summer vacations and
spring breaks to help rebuild towns devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
In America, change doesn’t start in Washington, DC; ordinary
citizens bring it to Washington, DC. This is what I have learned
in my own life—lasting change starts from the bottom, not
The most important political office is that of private citizen.
—Justice Louis Brandeis
When I was twenty-three years
old, I got this crazy idea that I wanted to be a community organizer.
It was an idea that came from the stories my mother and my grandparents
would tell me about the civil rights movement—stories about
young people sitting at lunch counters, riding on buses, and marching
for freedom. I thought that this could be my way to help fight
the injustices and the inequalities that still exist in our country.
I wrote letters to every organization in the country, and finally
a small group of churches in Chicago gave me a job organizing
neighborhoods devastated by steel-plant closings in the early
1980s. The churches paid me just $12,000 a year plus $1,000 to
buy a beat-up car.
I spent weeks organizing our very first community meeting about
gang violence. We invited the police. We made phone calls, went
to churches, and passed out flyers. The night of the meeting,
we arranged rows and rows of chairs. We waited. Then a group of
older people walked into the hall, and an old lady asked, “Is
this where the bingo game is?”
The meeting was a disaster, and the volunteers were ready to quit.
I looked outside and saw some young boys playing in a vacant lot,
tossing stones at a boarded-up apartment building. I turned to
the volunteers, and I said to them, “Before you quit, I
want you to answer one question. Who will fight for those boys
if not us? Who will give them a fair shot if we leave?”
We didn’t reach every child, but we did help some.
The American story shows us that citizens are the catalyst for
change. These are ordinary people who long for something better.
Every day, this is the power that you as teachers hold in the
classroom. You have the responsibility and privilege of guiding
our young people to understand that challenges are met and injustices
overcome because citizens just like them are standing up and demanding
change. If you inspire them to act, then America will be transformed
for the better, and the role of citizen will remain the most important
political office in America.
This is what we can teach our young people together. Let’s
turn the page and begin.
BARACK OBAMA is a U.S.
Senator from Illinois and the author of The Audacity of Hope
and Dreams from My Father.