A try to help my Little Brother find positive voluntary associations. I encourage him to volunteer at his local church, and to seek afterschool enrichment programs and tutoring. But this is not always easy. He often says that he feels that people do not care -- his teachers, his parents, and even his friends who try to uphold a 'straight and narrow' path. He also says that he wants to feel as if he is accepted by other people, and sometimes his drive to feel accepted right now is more powerful than pursuing long-range goals and the promise getting into college, of 'making it' in a larger American social context. I try to provide a positive role model for him, but it can be difficult to describe to him that sometimes you need to get through the present to move into the future, when many of the images of the future he sees, are not embodied in the lives of the individuals in his immediate community. This underlines how rather than one 'America' there are many Americas, and sometimes too much emphasis on small communities can lead to some people being shut out of a greater American dream, if they do not feel there is support within their own immediate environment for achievement.
Derek C. Bok's essay on "Easing Political Cynicism with Civic Involvement" is a tribute to the value of political involvement and a critique of the view that the quality of federal representation in this nation has grown notably worse. I thought of the ability of the political climate in America to change and shift for the better when talking with my Little Brother today, about the current election. He told me that if he could vote, he would vote for Barak Obama and that he could not wait until he was old enough to vote in an election. It was inspiring to hear someone so young who was excited about the political process and also to compare his own enthusiasm with my lack of political engagement at his age. I never thought of politics as exciting, or thought that an election would have a significant impact upon my life. Now I know I was wrong and in particular I see how student loans and prospective job opportunities and other issues that will affect me in the short-term are directly impacted by who is in the White House. Talking with my Little Brother gave me an even more far-ranging view of the importance of the next presidential election on education and inspiring the next generation.
Through my Little Brother's eyes I also see how a mentor can have a significant impact on someone's worldview. My little brother has said he sees me as a mentor, and he also sees Barak Obama as a mentor and a role model, even though he has never met him. I know that Obama began his political career as a community organizer, working on a grass-roots level to help others change their lives, and I like to think I am doing the same with my own community work.
Given that I am volunteering for a private non-profit organization I think it is worthwhile to devote an entry to the question raised by John W. Kingdon in "America the Unusual," namely why American government is so small, smaller than almost any other major industrialized nation. Do I think that public or private organizations should step in to address the type of social ills that afflict people like my little brother, who goes to a school district many people would grade as failing, who lives in a crime-ridden environment, and who is the child of a single mother? In many ways, I think that there is a great advantage to having private organizations uniquely tailor their serves to the particular needs of the community. Although Big Brothers / Big Sisters is a national organization, community chapters like the ones in San Francisco can be more responsive to local needs than perhaps a larger organization. And the type of one-on-one interaction fostered by community organizations is uniquely helpful to individuals in need, particularly children.
Of course, some authors like Gertrude Himmelfarb in her "Second Thoughts on a Civil Society" would argue that morality alone is the antidote to what she sees as personal excesses -- fatherless homes, crime, and so forth. But even if organizational efforts do not replace fathers, good schools, or even provide perfectly safe streets, they can provide the internal fortitude in at least some individuals to overcome some unfortunate societal and personal barriers to success.
On the other hand, it could be argued that only national governments can really address the social ills that give rise to crime and poverty. I think that organizations like Big Brothers/Big Sisters can address psychological needs of people like my Little Brother in a profound way that a program staffed solely by professional bureaucrats cannot -- I can give my Little Brother a sense of being special, even simply by doing little 'extra' things like buying him a toy with his favorite cartoon character, in a way that gets him through his day. But community organizations alone are not enough to instate real, fundamental societal changes. Even the national branches of nonprofit organizations cannot change schools, redress workplace discrimination, or give students the necessary funds to go to college.
The ideal, I think, is a balance between public and private organizations and mobilization. But the question is: if government steps in, will people feel there is less of a need for social engagement and volunteering? Yet on the other hand, if we emphasize volunteerism too much, will people focus too much on the personal, and not on the societal? It is hard to strike a balance, and there may be no perfect balance between volunteering on a personal scale and using government actions to change America, rather it is a constant negotiation.
Entry 8: Conclusion have been thinking a great deal of "An American Morality Tale" by Robert B. Reich given the news that I have been reading -- that America loves both a tale of a struggle of the individual vs. The world, but also that of a community coming together behind that individual. Of course, the newspapers today contain a great deal of evidence demonstrating it is impossible for one person to single-handedly eradicate corruption. Although Reich wrote his essay in 1997, the idea that bureaucrats are 'bad' has lead sometimes to just as many problems as too much bureaucracy seems prophetic.
It is unrealistic to expect too much of one's self, and one's individualized efforts. I think that can lead to cynicism, if you expect the government, a private organization, or yourself to be able to change the world very quickly. What I try to focus on is small goals and small steps, day by day, for myself and for what I set out to do. Most of the time, during my volunteering with my Little Brother, I set out just to have fun, given that fun is often in short supply in his world, and he doesn't have much time just to be 'a regular kid.' embarked upon my journey as a Big Brother with the intent of changing a young person's life. I don't know if I did accomplish that task of course. Only time will tell, as he grows and matures. He must confront challenges like poor schooling, temptations to engage in negative lifestyle choices, and not enough emotional and academic support from his mother at home. But I do know that I gained a great of insight engaging with someone who was so different than myself and I think that he gained some insight as to what his dreams for the future will be, in the changing America of 2009 and beyond. I think that it is always healthy to get out of one's comfort zone and narrow community, and engage with others of different ages and backgrounds. My community has grown larger and richer as a result of my volunteerism.
Being part of the Big Brothers/Big Sisters highlighted the difficulties of changing the world one person at a time because of all of the obstacles my Little Brother has to face, in terms of his family life, school, and general environment. Changes are needed that are much greater than the organization or one person can achieve, for all of the rhetoric that exists about American individualism -- after all, Frederick Douglass teaching himself to read was a monumental personal achievement, but as great as he was, it took a national effort to eliminate slavery from America, not simply changing minds. That does not mean that people should forget about the value of community and the power of one -- private, spontaneous community volunteerism and government must work…