At a time when more social responsibility is needed, Steve Kelman notes, a 30-year-old presidential initiative is still delivering.
In my blog post last week, I suggested that our COVID-19 problem was so severe in the U.S. because our culture of individualism made people less willing to make simple sacrifices to slow the disease. Yet we also have a socially responsible side as well.
One of the points I made was that our leaders have an important role to play in getting us to think more about the social responsibility side of ourselves and less about the self-regarding one. I noted in the post that perhaps the last time a president undertook that role seriously was when George H.W. Bush announced the “thousand points of light" initiative in his 1989 inaugural. After the blog came out, it was retweeted by something called the Points of Light Foundation. I wrote them and told them I wanted to learn more about their organization, and this was followed up by a phone conversation and an email with various materials attached.
Many presidential initiatives are announced with fanfare one day and quickly forgotten. Thirty years later, this is still around. Quite impressive.
The first feature of Points of Light is that it actually gives a new award each weekday, starting in 1990, just the year after Bush’s initiative. One of the awardees from last week was 14 year-old Vincent McKinney from Michigan, for developing a herpetarium in his school. He was looking for an Eagle Scout project, and his parents suggested he choose one involving something he was passionate about, rather than a typical Eagle Scout project like constructing a flagpole. McKinney was fascinated by reptiles and amphibians, and decided to build one at his school for him and classmates to enjoy. He met with the school staff, worked on advertising, recruited volunteers, planned fundraisers, tracked donations and inventory, and spent a significant amount of time conducting research on the best reptiles to house in the herpetarium, including looking into the necessary tanks, diet, lighting and supplies. After months of work, Vincent was able to provide his school with a herpetarium containing 19 reptiles and amphibians.
"Having a true passion for something good can encourage others to care too, and can impact far beyond your expectations," Vincent explained. His Herpetology Club maintains the herpetarium, hosts reptile presentations for class tours, holds assemblies for schools within the area, and does public demonstrations.
A second awardee from last week was Quintrell Reese , a 15 year-old from Baltimore who has lost relatives to gun violence and become an activist in an organization called the Bmore Safe Project. He has led volunteers in more than 100 community cleanups and a handful of peace walks in the past two years, working to make sure residents feel connected. "We plant flowers and bushes for our cleanups," he said, “and also hold cookouts at block parties to bring the community together." When asked what volunteering meant to him, he responded with one word, “peace."
The kind of work these winners have done goes far beyond volunteering at a hospital once a week. Indeed, Points of Light now talks about civic engagement, of which volunteering is a part but which also includes voting, service, and social entrepreneurship.
The second special feature of Points of Light is its unabashedly bi-partisan nature. In the first year of the Clinton administration after Bush, Clinton signed the National Community Service Act creating Americorps. In 2009 Presidents Obama and George H.W. Bush joined to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the 1989 initiative Presidential Forum on Service. In 2017 the country was hit by an unprecedented three category 4 and 5 hurricanes. Afterwards, there was a concert to benefit the communities that had been hit, “Deep From the Heart: The One America Appeal." Points of Light made five awards to volunteers who had worked in different ways on hurricane relief. who were recognized on stage with all five living former U.S. presidents. When President Clinton spoke to last year’s first annual Points of Light gala, he reported that when he met with President Bush in the White House just before taking office, the one request Bush made of him was to continue points of light.
I was reminded while working on this blog about something else involving George H.W. Bush. He once, after leaving the White House, shaved off all his hair to show support for the three year-old son of a secret service agent suffering from leukemia who had lost his hair from chemotherapy. I will leave to blog readers to reflect on how likely something like this would be to happen today.
We have evidence that social responsibility is contagious – if we see people picking up discarded coffee cups on the grass at a park, we are more likely to do the same.
Work such as this is always needed, but in our current climate – with our toxic partisanship and with some actively resisting efforts to help others during the pandemic by wearing masks, it is needed more than ever. This year’s Points of Light gala will be livestreamed on Sept. 26. I would like to see Points of Light work with the media to get these needed stories out.
Remember -- this is contagious, in a far better way than COVID-19. Perhaps 2021 will be the year to relight the points of light.
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