In 1963, President John F. Kennedy called the top attorneys from across the country to the White House. At the time, Southern courts weren't enforcing federal civil rights laws. Kennedy challenged these attorneys to rally their profession and provide pro bono support to Americans in the South in an attempt to force the judicial system to abide by the law.
Today, the legal community provides billions of dollars a year in pro bono services and is a core part of our society. This can all be traced back to that historic meeting at the White House.
Since Kennedy, countless politicians of every rank have called on Americans to serve, each with a different approach. President George H. W. Bush coined the concept of "thousand points of light" to encourage collaboration and leadership among excelling community organizations, and President Bill Clinton established the AmeriCorps program to engage citizens in national service. State and local governments are creating cabinet seats in governors' offices and city halls across the nation to coordinate service efforts. But to achieve truly sustained impact these initiatives must go beyond building bureaucracy, to focusing on fundamentally systemic change.
There were three keys to Kennedy's challenge to lawyers in 1963 that made it a success that has yet to be duplicated on a similar scale:
First, he didn't ask all citizens to enforce the laws; the President asked the group of Americans that had the unique skills to do the job. It was clear that if the legal profession didn't step up, nothing was going to happen.
Second, the challenge he presented was time-sensitive. There wasn't the luxury of sitting in committee for months or years designing a plan. The issue required immediate and urgent action.
Finally, he asked the profession -- not a new government agency or cabinet position -- to own the effort. This forced the business community to be proactive and build their own infrastructure to support ongoing efforts rather than depend on a third party. Today, law firms have pro bono coordinators on staff, and there are hundreds of nonprofits across the country largely funded by the legal community to support pro bono services.
With mounting social, economic and environmental challenges facing our cities and nation, we need political leaders to follow Kennedy's example and change the way Americans engage in social change.
This is a rare opportunity that doesn't require politicians to spend a penny or negotiate painful and glacially slow legislation. It simply requires their leadership to identify needs and use their pulpit to challenge targeted segments of the community to rise to the occasion.