Freedom Summer '09

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The Obama campaign unleashed a wellspring of idealism among Americans of all generations. Now is the time to organize it.

We hope that Freedom Summer '09 -- a pilot project in the Washington, DC metropolitan area this year -- will lead to a nationwide effort to get high school and college students working to build stronger communities and to get American communities, rich and poor, organized to better meet the challenges our nation faces. Organized by the coalition of major civil rights organizations in 1964, the original Freedom Summer project sent more than 1,000 students and other volunteers to Mississippi to register black voters and focused national attention on the issue. It also transformed the lives of many of the volunteers. Today, we need a new version of Freedom Summer, but one that deals with a different set of issues and engages far more people.

Imagine if most people in the average American community routinely worked together, as they often did in World War II, to support civic infrastructure. In the midst of the war, there were some 20 million victory gardens – this in a country of fewer than 40 million households. Millions more volunteered for active military duty or helped out on the home front. Let’s now harness that same sort of energy, that willingness to work and sacrifice for the common good, to strengthen and reorganize our communities to support a civic infrastructure that we can all be proud of.

The Canvassing Experience. Perhaps there is no better way to see what we do, then to actually SEE it. Here's one aspect of our community organizing experience - Canvassing!

First, recruit college and high school students to volunteer this summer to help launch community-building work by canvassing America’s neighborhoods door to door. Rather than focus on raising contributions or garnering political support, they would start with dialogue: What are your needs and the needs of your community? What are your concerns or fears about this effort? Would you participate? Do you have time or other resources to contribute?

Second, build on current knowledge and infrastructure, and use technology to coordinate the work. We have ample resources to begin. The Obama campaign website permitted volunteers to log calls and visits and to manage house parties and special events. The new website(s) will do this and more. It would permit users to track contacts and coordinate events, but it would also go further by creating maps of community assets and needs. These will serve as a base for engaging the community around planning new projects. The website would also providing training and other knowledge to help volunteers and communities with the nuts and bolts of project management and other necessary skills and a "knowledgebase" of successful projects and best practices. The project would provide face-to-face training to help participants develop as leaders, organizers, and citizens.

This infrastructure is either already available or can be readily constructed. Nonprofits like, GuideStar, the Foundation Center, the Urban Institute (my organization), and others know how to build the technical infrastructure or have pieces of it already in place. And many organizations, both local and national, can help coordinate local activities or provide training material and webinars and on-the-ground training. City Year, Public Allies, and the Center for Community Change and traditional charities that promote local volunteerism and leadership training are examples.

At a deeper level, this project is not about “bricks and mortar.” It is about changing how Americans relate to one another and think about their communities and their lives. It’s about moral and transformational leadership, about helping Americans young and old learn the “habits of the heart,” and of the mind -- the leadership skills, the personal management skills, and the values -- to move beyond detachment and cynicism to work together to achieve the common good.

America has the building blocks – the idealism, the good will, the infrastructure of organizations and of community leaders. But we need to use those blocks to rebuild.

We can do that if we agree on some basic principles, especially the principle that people need to work together as equals. As President Obama has repeatedly said, we need a society that is about "us," not about superstars. Many worthwhile endeavors in the for-profit, nonprofit, and political realms succeed for a time, but eventually fade or fail because they rely on charismatic superstars and "saviors." Extravagant salaries in parts of the nonprofit sector symbolize loss of a deeper vision of community and leadership. The proposed endeavor will avoid this pitfall. Whether it develops through existing organizations or through a new one, Freedom Summer ’09 will avoid this superstar culture.

Partisanship isn’t what this is about either. Freedom Summer ’09 should appeal to thoughtful people on both the left and right of the political spectrum. On the right, remember Tocqueville's belief in the Americans' habit of acting on the basis of "self-interest rightly understood," willingly "sacrific[ing] a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state" and to our skill at "the art of association," the distinctly American art of working together voluntarily to achieve common goals. Center left is a Democratic president who spent several formative years as a community organizer.

What would success look like? Affluent families, young retirees, or families with a spouse who could afford to be a full-time volunteer devote themselves to community work. Any young college graduate who wanted to serve the public could find a job in government, the Peace Corps, or a nonprofit organization for a year or two--or for a career.

Imagine if these efforts not only solved a myriad of concrete problems but also built deeper bonds within communities, deeper tolerance for diverse views and cultures, and more mature, resilient, far-sighted and effective community and political leaders.

The prospects for successfully tackling major challenges -- global warming, extreme or persistent poverty at home and abroad, looming federal budget crises -- and for restoring U.S. moral leadership would be greatly enhanced. Something like this just might be possible. But we must begin.