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Stephen Salinas

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Young People 'Make Real the Promises of Democracy'

Posted: 01/17/11 04:34 PM ET

When someone close to me was asked once what his life's mission was, his answer was to spread love as far as possible. That left me wondering what mine was, until I realized it was found in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., in his most famous speech, when he urged America "to make real the promises of democracy."

In its context, the quote reads:

"This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy."

What actions are we taking now?

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the holiday honoring one of America's great heroes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It has been nearly 43 years since Dr. King passed and, with each year, historians, pundits and the like reflect on the progress that we have made as a country.

We've achieved many great feats and have overcome significant social strife since the Civil Rights Movement. However, I keep asking myself how do we come closer to make real the promises of our democracy? What steps are we taking to get there? The very essence of democracy lies in the citizenry's willingness and ability to engage in civic life. If education plays a vital role in participation, then what can we expect if every 26 seconds a young person drops out of high school? There is no question that we have a crisis in education. And there is no doubt in my mind that education is the civil rights issue of our time.

I am grateful that I get to work with diverse young people from around the country who are giving a year of their lives to this important cause. City Year corps members -- like Hahn Chang, an 18-year-old from Minnesota who, among other things, is learning Spanish to help teach math to his students, or Jessica Arzate, a 22-year-old from Long Beach who works tirelessly to ensure her students graduate from the sixth grade able to read at or above grade level -- embody the ideals and the actions that Dr. King called for. They are joined by 200 more corps members just like them in Los Angeles and over 1,700 around the country. Their work cannot be dismissed as just something "nice"; they are doing what is necessary to move our country forward.

From 7:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. our corps members are full-time tutors, mentors and role models for the students most likely to dropout in some of L.A.'s toughest schools. And beyond ensuring that their students are showing measurable improvement in their attendance, behavior and course performance -- the risk factors recognized to predict the likelihood of a student dropping out -- they're their champions, their advocates and their connection to a better possible life. By fighting for these students and believing their success is possible, our corps members are helping to raise up the next generation.

People commonly ask why corps members decide to do their service year. Why put off the "real world"? I can tell you there is nothing more real than this. For City Year corps members and the AmeriCorps members that join us in the Education Corps it's because neither a child's ZIP code nor the color of their skin should dictate their access to a free quality education. And only when this is achieved can we really make steps to fulfilling the promises of democracy.