While Thomas Ehrlich grew up in a time when most Americans shared a strong sense of civic responsibility, I grew up surrounded by the boom of the Internet and digital media. Technology has fundamentally changed the way we are able to interact with others in civic work, as we discuss in the last chapter of our book. I have used technology to connect with dozens of young civic leaders around the world, and in writing my portions of our book, Civic Work, Civic Lessons: Two Generations Reflect on Public Service, I tell some of their stories, of which one is included below.
We use the term “civic work” synonymously with “public service” to include both work in public policy, politics, and government and also work in non-profit organizations that promote the public good. We chose the term “civic work” to lead in our title because we have found that “public service” is often not understood as covering nonprofit work of the kind that I and the young people I know engage in.
In my teenage years, I started a nonprofit organization, Visual Arts and Music for Society, to share the power of music. I encouraged fellow high-school musicians to use their talents to organize events for people in need. Our audiences included abused women, homeless families, orphans, and senior citizens.
This initiative pushed me to immerse myself in a range of civic ventures that other young people were engaged in throughout the country. The summer before college, I joined a national board responsible for allocating State Farm Insurance’s philanthropy dollars to youth civic causes. I have since been engaged in many other civic organizations and am now on the committee shaping a new leadership and service center at the Presidio in San Francisco.
A key lesson in our book is that public service should serve the public interest, which can mean providing basic human needs through nonprofit organizations as well as through government agencies.
Luis Ortiz is a young civic leader whom Tom and I interviewed. As I describe in our book, Luis works with the Latin America organization Un Techo para mi País (“A Roof for My Country”) to construct transitional houses for people who literally have no roof over their heads.
Luis helps provide a basic human necessity–a home–to those who cannot afford to buy or construct their own. In time, those people may gain the resources to acquire their own houses, but in the interim, this group ensures that they will have a place to call “home.”
Luis told me about one day when he splashed his face over and over again, allowing warm water to trickle down his forehead and cheeks. But he still felt dirty. He had just returned from “The Ice,” a small village in central Mexico City that was aptly named for its cold weather. Beyond the cold, Luis recalled the grim life of the residents living in mud. He remembered kids with their knees covered with mounds of dried dirt who attempted to push wooden toy cars across the mud. The mud pushed back at the wheels of their cars, preventing them from moving any distance.
Luis lived in “The Ice” for three days. During that time, he worked to lift planks of wood, hammer nails, and ultimately, build a home. When he finished building the home, it remained clean for a few minutes until one of the boys ran inside the house, and pushed his soiled car across the clean wooden floor planks.
That was one moment that confirmed Luis’ interest in serving the public, particularly in helping those in need of the basic necessities of life. Although he had felt filthy on the outside, he felt clean and purified on the inside. Upon returning home, taking a lukewarm shower wasn’t enough. He had to do more than help that one family. He had to build more houses.
Tom Ehrlich and I are eager to see youth civic energy not only continue to grow, but also to focus some of its attention on politics and public policy. We are just as eager to see the realm of public policy and politics learn from the nonprofit civic work in which so many youth groups are now engaged.
If our democracy is to flourish, youth must become much more active in public affairs and use the tools of digital media and other new technologies. Four key steps, as I describe in the book, should be followed to enhance civic work by using existing technologies and other new technologies that will emerge in the years ahead. These steps are: attract, engage, act, and measure.
Every generation has reshaped American civil society to meet the difficulties of its times. American youth today face particularly troubling challenges, both domestic and international. We are convinced that youth civic engagement can master those challenges. Tom and I hope our intergenerational vantage points offer useful insights for America’s youth and for those who advise them.
Ernestine Fu ’13 M.S. ’13 is a Ph.D. student in the School of Engineering.