Volunteerism 2.0 -- A Generation Seeking to Help

04/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"I just had a vision since I was young that I wanted to be a helpful person." -- Hannah Teter

For Hannah, snowboarder from small-town Vermont and Olympic gold medalist, that desire inspired the creation of Hannah's Gold, a charity devoted to providing clean drinking water to the children in the village of Kirindon, Kenya.

Hannah's aspiration seems to be a common one among young people of our generation. When asked what we want to do when we "grow up," responses such as "make a difference" or "do something to make the world a better place" seem more common now even than "be an astronaut" or "travel the world." During 2008 alone, the Corporation for National and Community Service reports that over 8.2 million young Americans (16-24) participated in some form of community service. According to the Higher Education Research Institute, the percent of first-year college students who believe that it is very important to help people in need is at its highest level since 1970. Without question, ours is a generation seeking to help.

For too long, there has seemed to be a central disconnect between the world of conventional politics and that of community service. Without question, for many of us, the rise of then-Senator Obama's candidacy for President represented the nexus of service and politics. Having devoted myself primarily to community service efforts for many years, I suddenly felt compelled to work for the advancement of Obama's then-unlikely candidacy because I believed, for the first time, that a political figure could bring real change.

In the role of National Director of the student wing of the Obama campaign, I discovered that the principles that apply to organizing groups of people to build a house for Habitat are the same as those that govern political organizing, whether on the school, state, or national level. At their best and most effective, both community service and politics represent forms of community organizing aimed at empowering people in need to achieve their goals for their community -- whether by cleaning up playgrounds or by voting.

As a generation united by the exhilaration of the Obama movement seeks to define in what ways we will seek to be helpful people, I hope that we will continue to use all avenues to create change. They may not realize it, but those entering the non-profit sector are in a unique
position to serve as advocates within the realm of traditional politics. While trying to improve one fifth grade classroom in rural Appalachia, we are gaining a perspective from which to participate actively in the debate regarding No Child Left Behind. While serving as a translator for recent immigrants from Haiti, we are coming to understand the ways in which Temporary Protective Status affects the lives of families. While distributing grants to fund green energy
projects, we are amassing a body of evidence that can be used in creating innovative solutions to environmental challenges. Similarly, I implore those who are entering the world of traditional politics to ground your work in your service experiences and to come to know the communities you seek to change.

By making phone calls to undecided voters, by signing up for Saturday service projects, our generation has already displayed a unique passion. Whatever the issue or the venue, it is that passion that will enable us to bring together the worlds of politics and service in innovative ways to achieve not-yet-conceived objectives.