This piece was co-written with Hana Suckstorff, Communications Associate at Interfaith Youth Core.
Nineteenth-century activist and community organizer Jane Addams once said, "Action indeed is the sole medium of expression for ethics." Her own life epitomized this ethic of civic participation. The settlement house for new immigrants that she founded on the Near West Side of Chicago, Hull House, provided educational and social services to a growing immigrant population deeply in need of both. To better serve the neighborhood, Hull House boasted Chicago's first public swimming pool, public gym, and public playground.
A new generation of civic leaders walking in Jane Addams' footsteps arrives in Chicago this week for the 2012 National Conference on Volunteering and Service. Participants will join leading public servants like Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Barbara Bush, and Dr. Jill Biden as they discuss how to engage, mobilize and lead volunteers of all ages in their communities. They'll address community issues from supporting our veterans to responding to natural disasters, and engage questions ranging from employee volunteer programs to effective use of social media.
The civic participation that these leaders speak to, and seek to inspire in others, has long been a part of America's civic strength. In the early 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the primary importance of civic associations and participation to the American character.
Chicago exemplifies America's unique history of civic engagement. Over the years, the city has drawn leaders from Addams to community organizer Saul Alinsky to the professors at Northwestern University who pioneered asset-based community development. Much is said about how Wall Street attracts young financiers and Silicon Valley draws young computer programmers. Chicago ought to be proud of its own distinct asset: a tradition that attracts community activists, including a young man named Barack Obama looking for his voice, his identity, and a way to make a difference.
Civic participation improves lives, builds what Harvard scholar Robert Putnam calls "social capital," and strengthens the social fabric of communities. But Jane Addams knew that service does something else: it brings people of different backgrounds together in positive ways. In the late 19th century, Hull House was full of Catholics and Jews from Eastern Europe who faced prejudice and discrimination from other Americans. Addams recognized that bringing people together in civic projects accelerated integration and built bonds with Americans who were already living here.
At Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), whose offices are just a few blocks from Hull House, we see a similar challenge and take a similar approach. The United States is the most religiously diverse country in the world and the most religiously devout nation in the West. In previous eras, civic participation played a key role in integrating Jews and Catholics into American life -- allowing our nation to gain from their contributions, and reducing prejudice against those groups. This strategy can do the same for religious communities such as Mormons and Muslims who currently face high levels of bias in the public arena.
Interfaith Youth Core's strategy is to train religiously diverse college students to lead interfaith service projects on their campuses. Through volunteerism and civic participation, young people of all religious and nonreligious identities strengthen relationships and communities, just like Hull House's first residents did a century ago.
One of Addams' most famous lines is, "The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life." The folks gathering this month in Chicago know that we all must be a part of securing that good. Civic participation keeps the heart of democracy beating. There is no better host city for this conference than Chicago, and I am honored to be a part of it.