Editor’s note: The following is a WND transcript of Barack Obama’s speech delivered in Colorado Springs, Colo., July 2, based on audio and video recordings.
As some of you know, I spent much of my childhood adrift. My father had left my mother and me when I was 2 years old. My mother remarried and we moved overseas for a time. But I was mostly raised in Hawaii by my mom and my grandparents who were from Kansas. And growing up, I wasn’t always sure of who I was or where I was going. That’s what happens sometimes when you don’t have a father in the home.
But during my first two years of college, perhaps because of the values my mother had taught me, values of hard work and honesty and empathy, perhaps because they had resurfaced after a long hibernation, or perhaps because of the example of wonderful teachers and lasting friends, I began to notice a world beyond myself.
And by the time I graduated from college, I was possessed with a crazy idea: that I would work at the grass-roots level to bring about change.
So I wrote letters to every organization in the country I could think of. And one day, a small group of churches on the South Side of Chicago offered me a job working to help neighborhoods that had been devastated by the steel plants that had closed in the early and mid- ’80s.
Now, my mother and my grandparents thought it might be wiser for me to go to law school. My friends were all applying for jobs on Wall Street. Meanwhile, this organization offered me $12,000 a year; they gave me $2,000 for all my car expenses for the next several years.
And I said yes. I said yes. I didn’t know a soul in Chicago. I wasn’t sure what was waiting for me when I got there.
I’d always been inspired by the stories of the civil rights movement and JFK’s call to service, but when I got to the South Side, there were no marches, there were no soaring speeches. In the shadows of an empty steel plant, there were just a lot of people who were struggling.
I still remember one of the very first meetings we put together. I was working with lay leaders from churches in the neighborhoods to try to forge this coalition. People had decided that the issue of gang violence was critical, and so they wanted to hold a community meeting to address gang violence.
And we put up thousands of fliers and we made phone calls to everybody we knew in the community. And the night of the meeting happens, and we put out hundreds of chairs like this. And we wait, and we wait, and for people to show up.
And finally this group of older people walk into the hall. And I’m relieved at least somebody’s showing up. And they sit down, and a little old lady, she raises her hand and she asks, “When’s the bingo starting?”
That was my first meeting as a community organizer. My first… first venture into community service.
It wasn’t easy. There were times where it was extraordinarily discouraging. But eventually we made progress. Day by day, block by block, we brought the community together. We registered new voters, we set up after-school programs and fought for new jobs, and helped people live the lives in these communities with more opportunity and some measure of dignity.
And I began to realize that I wasn’t just helping other people. Through service, I found a community that embraced me, citizenship that was meaningful, the direction that I’d been seeking.
Through service, I discovered how my own improbable story fit into the larger American story. There’s a lesson to be learned from generations who’ve served: from soldiers and sailors, airmen and Marines, from suffragists and freedom riders, teachers and doctors, cops and firefighters… (undecipherable) … streets, and all these high rises, everybody looking up into the sky, and then going to an office and watching the Twin Towers crumble.
And whether you lived in Manhattan or thousands of miles away in Colorado, you felt the pain and the loss of that day, not just as an individual but as an American.
And then, later, you also felt pride, pride in the firefighters who rushed up the stairs while workers were rushing down; pride in the police who provided comfort and the neighborhoods who lent a hand; pride in your citizenship and the tattered flag that flew at ground zero.
That’s why Americans lined up to give blood. That’s why we held vigils and flew flags. That’s why we rallied behind our president. We were ready to step into the strong current of history and to answer a new call for our country.
But the call never came. Instead of a call to service, we were asked to shop.
Instead of a call for shared sacrifice, we saw tax cuts go to the wealthiest Americans in a time of war, for the very first time in our history.
Instead of leadership that called us to come together, we got patriotism defined as the property of one party and used as a political wedge.
And we ended up going into a war that should have never been authorized and should have never been waged.
We have lost precious time. Our nation is less secure and less respected in the world. Our energy dependence has risen spectacularly, as has the price of gasoline; and so has the specter of climate change.
More of our children have been left behind, and our American dream risks slipping away.
The burden of service has fallen almost exclusively onto the backs of our military and their families, who have endured tour after tour after tour of duty, bravely and brilliantly, even though they haven’t always gotten the care and support that they have earned.
When I was thinking about whether to seek the presidency, there were voices that counseled me to wait. “Why not stay in Washington for a few more years,” they said, “to master the game?”
Well, the fact is, I’ve been in Washington long enough to know that that game needs to change.
And I am running… And I am running for president, right now, because of what Dr. King called the fierce urgency of now. This moment…
This moment is too important to sit on the sidelines. Our country faces determined enemies abroad and defining challenges at home.
I have no doubt that, in the face of these odds, people who love their country can change it. That’s why I’m running for president. That’s why I’m determined to reach out, not just to Democrats but to independents and Republicans, to every single American who wants to move this country in a new direction.
And that’s why I won’t just ask for your vote as a candidate, I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I’m president of the United States.
This won’t be a call issued in one speech or one program. I want this to be a central cause of my presidency. We will ask Americans to serve. We will create new opportunities for Americans to serve. And we will direct that service to our most pressing national challenges.
Let me give you some examples.
There is no challenge greater than the defense of our nation and our values. Our men and women of our military, from Fort Carson to Peterson Air Force Base, from the Air Force Academy to the ROTC students here on campus have signed up at a time when our troops face an ever-increasing load. Fighting a resurgent Taliban. Targeting Al Qaida. Preserving — persevering in the deserts and the cities of Iraq. Training foreign militaries. Delivering humanitarian relief.
In this young century, our military has answered when called, even as that call has often come far too frequently. Through their commitment, their capability and their courage, they’ve done us all proud. But we need… But we need to ease the burden on our troops while meeting the challenges of the 21st century. And that’s why I will call on a new generation of Americans to join our military and complete the effort to increase our ground forces by 65,000 soldiers and 27,000 Marines.
A call – a call to service must be backed by a sacred trust with anyone who puts on the uniform of the United States. So a young person joining our military must know that we will only send them into harm’s way when we absolutely must.
That we will provide them with the equipment needed to complete their mission safely and deployments that allow adequate time back home.
They must see that we’ll care for our military families while they’re deployed and that we’re providing our veterans with the support and benefits and opportunity that they’ve earned when they return home.
That’s what I’ve fought for on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. That’s what I’ll promise as commander in chief. And that’s what I will deliver.
Just as we must value and encourage military service across our society, we must honor and expand other opportunities to serve, because the future of our nation depends on the soldier at Fort Carson, but it also depends on the teacher in East L.A. or the nurse in Appalachia, the after-school worker in New Orleans, the Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, the foreign service officer in Indonesia.
Americans have shown that they want to step up. But we’re not keeping pace with the demand of those who want to serve or leveraging that commitment to meet national challenges.
FDR not only enlisted Americans to create employment, he targeted that service to build our infrastructure and conserve our environment.
JFK not only called on a new generation, he made their service a bridge to the developing world and a bright light of American values in the darkest days of the Cold War.
Today, AmeriCorps, our nation’s network of local, state and national service programs, has 75,000 slots. Now, I know firsthand the quality of these programs. My wife, Michelle, once left her job at a law firm and at city hall to be a founding director of an AmeriCorps program in Chicago that trains young people for careers in public service.
And these programs invest Americans in their communities and their country. They tap America’s greatest resource, our citizens. And that’s why as president I will expand AmeriCorps to 250,000 slots… and make that increased service a vehicle to meet national goals, like providing health care and education, saving our planet and restoring our standing in the world, so that citizens see their effort connected to a common purpose.
People of all ages, stations and skills will be asked to serve. Because when it comes to the challenges we face, the American people are not the problem — they are the answer.
So we are going to send more college graduates to teach and mentor our young people. We’ll call on Americans to join an energy corps, to conduct renewable energy and environmental clean-up projects in their neighborhoods all across the country.
We will enlist our veterans to find jobs and support for other vets, and to be there for our military families.
And we’re going to grow our Foreign Service, open consulates that have been shuttered and double the size of the Peace Corps by 2011 to renew our diplomacy. We cannot continue to rely only on our military in order to achieve the national security objectives that we’ve set. We’ve got to have a civilian national security force that’s just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded.
We need to use technology to connect people to service. We’ll expand USA Freedom Corps to create online networks where American can browse opportunities to volunteer. You’ll be able to search by category, time commitment and skill sets. You’ll be able to rate service opportunities, build service networks, and create your own service pages to track your hours and activities.
This will empower more Americans to craft their own service agenda and make their own change from the bottom up.
And we also need to invest in ideas that can help meet our common challenges, because more often than not, the great social innovations of the future won’t be generated by the government. The nonprofit sector employs 1 in 12 Americans, and 150 not-for-profits are launched every day.
You know, while the federal government invest $7 billion in research and development for the private sector, there’s no similar effort to support nonprofit innovation. Meanwhile, there are ideas across America, in our inner cities and small towns, from college graduates to seniors getting ready to retire, that could benefit millions of Americans, if they’re given a chance.
So as president, I will launch a new social investment fund network. It’s time to get the grass roots, the foundations, the faith-based organizations, the private sector, the government at the table together, so we can learn from our own successes.
We’ll invest in ideas that work, leverage private sector dollars to encourage innovation, and expand successful programs to scale.
Take a program like the Harlem Children’s Zone, which helps thousands of children in New York through after-school activities, mentoring and family support.
We need to make that model work in different cities across America. And just as we support small businesses, I’ll start a new social entrepreneur agency to make sure that small nonprofits have strong support from Washington.
That’s how we’re going to strengthen this sector and empower our citizens.
Now, finally we need to integrate services and education, so that young Americans are called upon and prepared to be active citizens. Just as we teach math and writing, arts and athletics, we need to teach young Americans to take citizenship seriously.
Now, part of that is strengthening our civic education. I’ve talked about this in my speech in Independence, Missouri, a couple of days ago. We need to teach our children what makes America great, and not take for granted how this country has been built, but rather get them to understand and respect the institutions that we hold so dear, and those documents, those founding documents upon which our freedoms are based.
But we also need to make sure that we’re giving them hands-on opportunities for service. Study after study shows that students who serve do better in school, are more likely to go to college, more likely to maintain that service as adults.
So, when I’m president, I will set a goal for all American middle and high school students to perform 50 hours of service a year… and for all college students to perform 100 hours of service a year.
That’s two hours a week. It’s not a lot.
And by the time you graduate, though, it adds up. You will have done 17 weeks of service. And we can reach this goal in several ways. At the middle and high school levels, we’ll make federal assistance conditional on school districts developing service plans, and give school resources to offer new service opportunities.
At the community level, we’ll develop public-private partnerships so students can serve more outside the classroom.
And for college students, I’ve proposed an annual American Opportunity tax credit: $4,000 for every student, every year. But to receive this credit, we will require 100 hours of public service.
You invest in America… America invests in you. That’s how we’re going to make sure that college is affordable, while preparing our nation to compete in the 21st century.
That’s something we can do right now.
And for our veterans – for our veterans, I was proud to be a strong and early supporter of Jim Webb’s bipartisan G.I. Bill, so that today’s vets… so that today’s vets have the same opportunity that my grandfather had under the G.I. Bill when he came back after World War II.
To marshal their talents in building a new energy economy, I want to launch an initiative to give our veterans the training they need to succeed in the green jobs of the future. It’s time to end our energy dependence at home so our national security isn’t held hostage to oil and gas from abroad.
And we can harness the skills and talents of so many of our veterans to do something about it.
We can also reach out to the nearly 2 million young Americans who are out of school and out of work. We can enlist in our energy corps, so that disadvantaged young people can find useful work, cleaning up polluted areas, helping weatherize homes, gaining skills in a growing industry.
And we can expand the Youth Build program, which puts young Americans to work building affordable housing in America’s poorest communities, giving them valuable schools – skills – and a chance to complete a high school education. Because no one should be left out of the American story.
No one should be left out.
Now, I know what the cynics will say. I’ve heard from them all my life. These are the voices that will tell you not just what you can’t do, but what you won’t do.
“Americans won’t come together.”
“Our allegiance doesn’t go beyond our political party or our race or our region or our religion, our congregations.”
“Young Americans, they won’t serve their country. They’re too selfish. They’re too apathetic. They’re too lazy.”
This is the soft sell of the status quo, the voice that tells you to settle because settling isn’t that bad.
That’s not the America that I’ve seen throughout this campaign. I’ve seen young people work and volunteer and turn out in record numbers.
I’ve met members of our military, like the thousands of soldiers and airmen right here in Colorado Springs, who signed up to serve in the wake of 9/11.
I’ve met community workers who want to care for our children, students who want to end the genocide in Darfur…
… businesses that want to expand opportunity and employ people, farmers who want to help free us from the tyranny of oil, seniors searching for ways to give back, people of every age, race and religion who want to come together to renew the American spirit.
Renewing that spirit starts with service.
Make no mistake, our destiny as Americans is tied up with one another. If we are less respected in the world, then you will be less safe. If we keep paying dictators for foreign oil, gas prices are going to keep rising and so are the oceans.
If we can’t give all of our children a world-class education, our economy’s going to fall behind. And that is… That’s why you matter so much. That’s how it should be. That’s the bet our founding fathers were making all those years ago, that our individual destinies could be tied together in the common fabric of democracy, that government depends not just on the consent of the governed, but on the service of citizens, the participation of citizens, the leadership of citizens.
That’s what history calls us to do, because loving your country shouldn’t just mean watching fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Loving your country – loving your country must mean accepting your responsibility to do your part to change it.
If you do, your life will be richer; our country will be stronger.
We need your service right now, at this moment, our moment in history.
Now, I’m not going to tell you what your role should be. That’s for you to discover. But I am going to ask you to play your part, ask you to stand up; ask you to put your foot firmly into the current of history. I’m asking you to change history’s course.
And if I had the great fortune to be your president, then decades from now, when the memory of this or that policy has faded and when the words that we speak in the next few years are long forgotten, I hope you remember this as the moment when your own story and the American story came together, and, in the words of Dr. King, the arc of history bent once more toward justice.
Thank you very much, everybody. Thank you.