Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service in San Francisco, California

June 22, 2009

Thank you so much. It is such a pleasure to be here with all of you today – thank you for having me.

Thank you, Lauren, for that wonderful introduction and for the outstanding work you're doing to teach, mentor and inspire our young people.

I would like to thank my friend, California's First Lady, Maria Shriver. She is an example of how service can transform lives. I enjoyed our time together today helping to build a playground at Bret Harte elementary school. Maria, you are an amazing woman.

I'd like to also recognize Karen Baker, California's Secretary of Service and Volunteering and the California Volunteers office, for her efforts to promote service in the state.

Thanks also to Michelle Nunn and Neil Bush from the "Points of Light and Hands On Network" for co-sponsoring this conference and for their extraordinary efforts to make this day possible.

And I want to give a warm thank you to Alan Solomont, Chairman of the Corporation for National and Community Service, along with its Board of Directors, its CEO, Nicola Goren, and its terrific staff.

With just 600 employees, this agency supports thousands of groups that engage millions of volunteers who change the lives of countless people every day, and we are so proud of their outstanding work – let's give them a hand.

Finally, I want to thank every single one of you at this conference today. You all aren't just service providers – you're service leaders, you're service pioneers, you're the movers and shakers who've made giving back cool and made volunteering a nationwide movement.

It's been said that our true calling in life is where our hearts' greatest gladness meets the world's deepest need.

All of you here today have found that place, and I want to thank you for everything you give and everything you do – you are an inspiration for all of us.

What you do every day isn't easy even in good times. And in times like these, when we're facing challenges unlike any in our lifetime, I know it can feel close to impossible.

When our economy falters, you're the ones who deal with the fallout – more folks needing those food pantries; more families needing help to stay in their homes and pay their bills; cities and states cutting services, leaving so many people with nowhere to turn.

And just as more people desperately need your help, you've got fewer resources at your disposal – so you're making do with less staff, working longer hours, stretching every dollar even further.

So you know better than just about anyone how badly we need change right now.

And I know better than just about anyone how hard our President is working to make that change – to break us out of the old habits that got us into this mess, and build a new foundation for our economy – making investments in education, health care, and clean energy that will create jobs, preserve our planet, and give our kids every opportunity to fulfill their dreams.

And we're beginning to make progress.

We're starting to see some glimmers of light at the end of that tunnel.

But at the end of the day, there's only so much we can do from Washington. Government can't be everywhere and do everything – we need active, engaged citizens like all of you to step up and do their part too.

Our government can rebuild our schools, but we need people to serve as mentors and tutors in those schools, to serve on the PTA and chaperone those field trips.

Our government can modernize our health care system, but we need people to volunteer to help care for the sick and help people lead healthier lives.

Our government can invest in clean energy, but we need people to use energy-efficient products, keep our public spaces clean, and train for the green jobs of the future.

This, more than anything, is the key point I want to make today – that this new Administration doesn't view service as separate from our national priorities, or in addition to our national priorities – we see it as the key to achieving our national priorities.

We believe that the only way to build that new foundation for our economy is to establish a new role for service in this country.

For far too long, we've viewed service in our communities as largely separate from the policies of our government.

There's a sense that service is helpful, but not essential – that it's something folks should do occasionally, particularly around the holidays; something you do to fulfill a requirement, or fulfill yourself.

But the real work of moving this nation forward is done elsewhere – in committee rooms and boardrooms; in marble hallways and West Wing offices.

Service is just a little something extra – the icing on the cake, but not part of the cake itself. I've seen this way of thinking at work in my own life.

I started my career at a big fancy law firm, working for big companies, making the big money. And when I decided to leave for a public service job, people thought I had lost my mind.

My mother worried that I'd taken her advice to follow my heart just a little too far. My friends worried that I was throwing away a lucrative paycheck and a prestigious career.

My husband had a similar experience when he decided after college that he wanted to be a community organizer in struggling neighborhoods in Chicago.

His family tried to convince him to go to law school instead. His friends all gave him a nice pat on the back – before heading to the post office to mail in their graduate school applications.

While everyone thought our hearts were in the right place, a lot of people wondered whether our heads were on straight.

Many of you have probably heard these same voices in your own lives.

The voices that tell you, "Well, that's awfully nice of you to do service, but when are you going to get a real job?"

Or "If you don't get paid a lot of money for what you do, then maybe it's not very valuable."

Or, "If you really want to make a difference and change the world, you need to do something more prestigious, more powerful, more important."

But what these folks don't understand is that the story of progress in this nation has always been the story of people who chose – in times of trial and struggle – to serve it.

The founders who set forth the ideals that have animated our democracy for more than two centuries; the soldiers who fought and died for those ideals; the abolitionists and suffragists and people who marched and stood up and sat-in to ensure those ideals would endure; the ordinary folks who've reached out to the least among us, providing a measure of dignity to people who have little else.

What they've done for this country isn't extra. It isn't just icing. It's what ensured our existence as one nation, the basic rights of our citizens, the well-being of our children.

Our history is one long testament to the fundamental truth that real change doesn't come from the top down from Washington, it comes from the bottom up – from citizens organizing and mobilizing and serving the nation that they love.

And today, at this defining moment, this Administration doesn't just see service as something that transforms individual lives, or individual communities – but as a force with the power to transform this nation.

The question is, how do we mobilize that force?

How do we connect people with opportunities, needs with deeds?

We know that so many folks are eager to give back – eager to be part of this nation's recovery and renewal.

Applications to AmeriCorps have quadrupled.

The Peace Corps had three applications for each available position last year.

35,000 young people applied for just 4,000 slots in Teach for America.

And so many members of the baby boom generation are reaching retirement age, eager to find ways to contribute. People across this country are ready to answer the call to serve – we just need to issue that call and provide those opportunities.

That's why the President urged people to serve on Martin Luther King Day, resulting in the largest turnout in history.

That's why we're creating a Community Solutions Fund to nurture the best, most innovative non-profits out there – to support the next generation of Geoffrey Canadas, Wendy Kopps and Dorothy Stonemans and replicate efforts like theirs all across America.

That's why the President signed historic national service legislation – the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act – expanding Senior Corps, AmeriCorps, Learn and Serve and other initiatives to usher in a new era of service.

That's why he called for funding for 13,000 additional AmeriCorps members in the Recovery Act, and requested a 29 percent budget increase for The Corporation for National and Community Service next year – the first step to increasing AmeriCorps to 250,000 volunteers.

The President has done all of this because he knows this investment will have returns many times over in the good it will do in our communities.

And that's why today, we are proud to officially launch United We Serve – a nationwide effort calling on all Americans to make service a part of their daily lives.

And when we say all, we truly mean all – young and old, from every background, all across this country.

We're asking individuals, corporations, community organizations, foundations and government to be part of this effort and work together, just like all of you are doing at this conference.

United We Serve will be led by the Corporation for National and Community Service, and it will focus on the four core parts of our recovery agenda: health care, energy independence, education and community and economic renewal.

Everything from organizing carpools and bike to work programs; to reading to children and registering people for library cards; to organizing community health drives and working with senior centers to promote exercise; to collecting and delivering food for families in need.

The idea here is simple: we want to make it as easy as possible for folks to start serving, and do everything we can to make sure they stay involved.

So over the past month, we've been reaching out to hundreds of non-profit and community groups all across this country and asking them to post volunteer opportunities at serve.gov.

We've also reached out to ordinary folks involved in service projects in their communities, asking them to list those projects too.

And we've asked folks to step up and become service leaders – to identify unmet needs in their communities, develop their own projects to address them, and post those at serve.gov so that others can join them.

It's like Lily Tomlin once said: "I always wondered why somebody didn't do something about that. Then I realized I was somebody."

That's exactly the point – to make everybody realize that, when it comes to serving their communities, they can be somebody.

Serve.gov offers people everything they need to get their projects started. It provides tools to help them set outcome-oriented goals and track the impact they're having.

And it allows them to connect with others in their area who want to organize around the same issue and share stories and best practices.

Today, I and several members of the President's Cabinet are fanning out across America, participating in service projects ourselves – and we're asking people to go to serve.gov, search for projects in their area, and sign up to pitch in.

Even if you have just a few hours once in a while, or just an hour a week, you can make a difference.

You don't need any special skills or talents or experience – you just need to show up and do your part to help.

The first phase of United We Serve will run this summer, from today to September 11th, which will be a National Day of Service and Remembrance.

And while that day will be the culmination of this effort, it's by no means the conclusion – just the opposite, actually.

On that day, we'll honor those who lost their lives eight years ago, and in their memory, we'll renew our commitment to keep serving, to make service a habit of citizenship.

So in a way, this summer is just a preview of what's to come, the first step in our work to create a new era of civic engagement all across America.

Already, we're seeing people from all different sectors answering the call to carry this work forward.

Today, I'm pleased to announce one outstanding example – an initiative created by the Entertainment Industry Foundation, an organization that harnesses the power of Hollywood to raise awareness of, and money for, pressing social causes.

This Foundation has enlisted the four major networks – ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC – to take part in a week-long television event in support of national service.

During the week of October 19th, these and other networks will include service themes and plots in our favorite TV programs, showing the celebrities we love getting involved to serve their communities.

The idea is to emphasize for viewers across the country that service is a part of who we are as Americans – and to highlight the power of service to make a difference in people's lives.

Ultimately, efforts like these and like United We Serve won't just help us build that new foundation for our economy.

They won't just make a difference in our communities and in the lives of the people we serve.

They will also make a difference in the lives of those who perform that service.

They'll give people a chance to experience the pride that comes with giving back and the inspiration that comes from being part of something bigger than themselves.

Kate Amanna, who worked at the Red Cross in New York helping families affected by 9/11 had that experience. She said that her service "…taught me that each day is a new beginning, and with each new beginning is a chance to make this world a safer and happier place."

Thelma King, from Jacksonville Florida – or "Granny King" as the emotionally and academically challenged students she works with call her – she's had that experience.

When asked how she communicates with these kids, she replied, simply, "All kids understand the language of love."

Jason Best, an AmeriCorps volunteer in Denver, Colorado has had that experience too. He wrote a poem about serving that I'd like to quote – he wrote, "I have taught beautiful forgotten children how to read. I have loved those who weren't cared for, and watched people who were considered broken perform miracles…I carried those who could not walk, and they taught me how to stand."

You all know exactly what these folks are talking about. That's why you're here. That's why you do what you do every single day.

And I hope that during your three days at this conference, you have a chance to recharge, to be re-inspired, to make new friends, learn everything you can, and have some fun while you're at it.

We all know that our challenges are great and that we've got a long, hard road ahead of us. But standing here today with all of you – people who love this country and have devoted your lives to helping people share in its promise – I feel nothing but hope for our future.

Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.

NOTE: Remarks as prepared for delivery.

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service in San Francisco, California Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320200

Filed Under




Simple Search of Our Archives