Monday, June 27, 2011

What You Can Do for Your Country

Video Credit: The above "It's Up to You" video was shared with me by my Sister in New York. It was used in 2010 as an opening video for the National Conference on Volunteering and Service.

We've all heard John F. Kennedy's famous quote, "Ask not what your country can do you for, but what you can do for your country." I wonder, have we asked ourselves that question lately? I am often underwhelmed with the direction of politics these days and the disappointing media coverage that supports it. I think we've all become a little too comfortable asking our country what it can do for us and not what we can do for it. Now, I could also quote Elvis if that would make you feel better? He said, "A little less conversation, a little more action please." Perhaps he wasn't referring to civic service, but I think he was on to something...

Yesterday I was talking to my Sister who works for AmeriCorps. She is helping fight poverty in a very poor area of New York. You would think at least in the Capital Region, Albany and surrounding area, the economy would be doing OK. In reality, the majority often live below the poverty line and struggle to get by. The neighborhoods and downtown centers are depressed, empty old buildings are not uncommon, as compared to the bustling Puget Sound region of Washington State. I visited my Sister in New York over a year ago and saw it first hand. However, these communities, though poor, have something very special about them - they are incredibly resourceful! It is inspiring.

My Sister bought a bike. Since she lives under the poverty line herself, there wasn't a chance she was going to go to a fancy outdoors store and buy herself a brand new bike. So, what did she do? She went to a local Bike Rescue. This community-drive collective of bike enthusiasts find nothing more glorifying than repairing old bikes and making them ridable again. And what do they do with these refurbished bikes? They sell them at a very low cost to people in the community, like my Sister. There is even an option to "Learn and Earn". If you volunteer to learn how to fix a bike, you can have it for free. I've seen pictures of my Sister's bike. It looks great! She says the gears shift smoothly and it is comfortable to ride. Who could ask for more?

So what? Anyone can get an old bike, right? This may be true. But it is so much more than that. This collective exemplifies everything a community should be doing. This group has taken their personal hobby in biking to a whole new level. They aren't just repairing bikes in their individual garages all by themselves, they are doing it together. They aren't repairing a bike and never riding it again, they are using their skills to gift the community. They aren't storing an old bike in the garage while running out to buy something brand new, they are revitalizing what they have. They are making their community more vibrant for themselves and those whom they are serving. And, I bet they are having fun doing it. This is exactly what every community in America needs, thoughtful service-minded people who are engaged with each other working to make the world better around them.

Communities that are low income, like the Capital Region of New York, are getting it right. First of all, not having a lot of money may feel like fewer and fewer choices are available to us. However, having less money also fosters ingenuity and incentives to be resourceful making a community better off. I guess what I'm trying to say is human capital goes a long way too. Too often we focus on monetary things and bottom lines. We pay more and more attention to paychecks and shopping lists. If we want to make our communities better, our country stronger, let's take a closer look at what we already have and work with it. Let's take our skills, talents, and generosity and transform it into service. In a land buzzing of budgets, debt ceilings, and unemployment numbers, this is a welcome call to action in what could become a refreshing and productive new direction for all of us.

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