(As Prepared For Delivery)
Berkeley Springs, West Virginia
September 28, 1998
As a Federal Communications Commissioner in a sense I am charged with worrying about the future. The imminent approach of the next millennium is triggering much speculation about what our collective future holds for us in the 21st century. Much of the speculation stems from the fact that we, as a Nation and a global community, have largely experienced and enjoyed a very profound changes in our daily lives over a relatively short period of time.
In fact, on the heels of the 1900s—a century of unparalleled activity and advancement in technology, medicine, democracy, and diplomacy, punctuated with sporadic episodes of war and decline—there is a palpable sense of heightened wonderment and anxiety about what we can expect from the next century. The benefits and forward-progress we will enjoy. The responsibilities and duties we will shoulder. And the perils we will have to avoid or overcome.
Whatever this future holds it will be our children that must face its challenges. Children are one-third of our population, but all of our future. That is why we gather together today and pledge to make a difference in their lives – to mentor them, to protect them, to teach them, and to inspire them to do the same for their children and the generations that follow – so that there is a future to speak of.
We are assembled in the name of America’s Promise. And while commitment to the organization that bears the name is our immediate purpose, it is the glory and the ideal that the name embodies that is our true calling. What is America’s Promise? What is it that this country, second-to-none, holds out for its children?
The word promise has two central meanings. For one, a promise is "a ground for expectation of success, improvement or excellence." The promise of America, then, is an expectation of opportunity. It is a land offering the opportunity to be happy and fulfilled in one’s personal life and to give the same to one’s family. It is a nation where one can achieve professional success, even fame. It is the only nation that dares to claim, in the words of the old song of the early 1900s "every boy (and I would add girl) can be President." It is a place where one can expect to be secure in one’s home, free of government intrusion or threat of harm from your enemies.
America’s promise has for centuries burned as a beacon drawing those in search of opportunity from around the world:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tossed to me,
proclaims the famous Emma Lazarus inscription on that venerable symbol of our nation, the Statue of Liberty.
Like the Biblical "Promised Land" of Canaan, America offers the promise of a better country or condition: a place that promises final satisfaction or realization of our hopes and dreams. America’s Promise is the American Dream.
Yet, the dream’s of children can go unrealized without proper care and feeding. The children of our communities face persistent threats that are conspiring to rob them of their due: Crime, drugs and alcohol, premature and unprotected sex, and poor education can steal not only their happiness, but their very lives. Consider the facts:
These facts are unacceptable. This bleak reality will smother our children’s potential, leaving them ill equipped, unfit, or worse underground and unavailable to face the future.
We are here today, as are many communities around this sweet land of liberty, to turn these facts around. We are here to make a promise. I said at the outset that there are two central definitions of the word promise. I have discussed the first. The second is "a declaration that one will do something specified." Put more strongly, a promise is a declaration that gives the person to whom it is made a right to expect or to claim the performance of a specified act – a contract."
This community’s promise, or contract is not to me. It is not to the organizers of this event, it is not to the Governor of this great state, nor is it to the Chairman of America’s Promise, Colin Powell. It is a promise to our children. It is them you must look in the eye and pledge to. And, it is they who will pay the consequences if we fail to make good on that pledge.
What is it that we are committing to our youth? America’s Promise has put forth five fundamental resources that research indicates are necessary for children to lead a successful life.
Resource One. An ongoing relationship with a caring adult. Communities need to provide all young people with sustained adult relationships through which they can experience support, care, guidance, and advocacy. Caring and connnectedness within and beyond the family consistently are found to be powerful factors in protecting young people from negative behaviors and in encouraging good social skills, responsible values, and positive identity.
Ideally, youth develop sustained connections with: parents or other caregivers; extended family members, neighbors and other adults children see in their daily lives; and, adults who spend time with youth through programs, including coaches, teachers, mentors, child care workers, youth workers, and employers. All of us who have had any success in our lives can tell the story of an important mentor, teacher, or coach that helped us realize our potential. We need to ensure our children get the same.
Resource Two. Access to safe places and structured activities during non-school hours to learn and grow. Children and youth need structure, and they need to be physically and emotionally safe. Providing safe places and structured activities has many benefits both to young people and society, including: connecting children to principled and caring adults; protecting youth from violence and other dangerous or negative influences, and creating peer groups that exert positive influences on its members. Research consistently affirms the value of these opportunities.
Yet, far too many children and adolescents do not have ongoing access to this critical resource. Sixty-percent of 6th to 12th grade youth report spending two or more hours per school day at home without an adult. And, not coincidentally, 22% of violent juvenile crime occurs between 2 and 6 p.m. on school days. Lets do what we can to change this.
Resource Three. A healthy start for a healthy future. To many, "a healthy start" focuses on what children need before they go to school—prenatal care, immunizations and school readiness. Indeed, these early years are crucial. But we must also think about this resource more broadly as "a healthy start" for adulthood. This shift in thinking highlights the urgency of providing the following types of services and opportunities during the entire birth-to-20 age span:
Too few young people have access to these resources in their communities. We are not providing them a healthy start.
Resource Four. A marketable skill through effective education. Employers increasingly need workers who can think, learn new skills rapidly, work in teams, and solve problems creatively. Yet, too few youth—whether college bound or not—have these qualities or, in many cases, even basic work skills.
Making a successful transition from school to work is a critical milestone in the developmental journey. Yet, significant shifts in both the workplace and the skills needed make it harder for young people to make successful transitions into the work world.
There are many important qualities, skills and competencies that young people need to be successful and productive workers, Among these are: foundation in basic skills such as reading, writing, mathematics, science, technology, and communication; thinking skills such as creativity, decision making, problem solving, and reasoning; and personal attitudes and qualities such as responsibility, self-motivation and management, and integrity.
Particular supports are needed to enhance skills and readiness for work. These include school reform efforts (to ensure that students are engaged in relevant, challenging, and interesting learning) and education about economics and business, internships, work study, vocational and career counseling, and on-the-job experiences that expose them to career opportunities and job skills. Such efforts prepare young people to be valuable workers throughout their lives.
Resource Five. Opportunities to serve. Its time to see young people as part of the solution, not as the problem. Even though youth are more likely to volunteer than adults, fewer than half of all youth consistently serve others. A result is that they miss this powerful opportunity for growth.
Giving children and adolescents opportunities to serve others is an important strategy in shaping America’s future. Though school-based community service has received the most attention, there are many different avenues through which youth can contribute to their community.
Though service by youth is often "packaged" as a single program run by an organization or social institution, promoting service as a lifelong commitment is enhanced when youth participate at many ages, through multiple avenues, and when opportunity is given to reflect on the act of service—hence, the term service-learning.
An emerging body of research suggests that service-learning experiences enhance self-esteem, a sense of personal competence and efficacy, engagement with school, and social responsibility for others. With appropriate training and support, there are hundreds of different types of service young people can perform in their communities. Just as important is to remember that youth are much less likely to volunteer if they are not asked.
From its inception, America’s Promise has had its skeptics. We heard that after the speeches, after the parades it would all dry up. Corporations would not give of their time and money. Communities would not respond. Politicians would find new crowds and new causes. But this has not happened. This effort has caught fire in the boardrooms as well as the streets of America. Why?
Sometimes, the reason need not be complicated. One does not need analysts, commentators and other talking-heads to tell us why this is working. Sometimes, a thing or an idea is just right. Right for ourselves, right for our children, and right for our future. A thing, whose purpose is so compelling, so indisputable that we have no choice but to stand and be counted.
Can it be done? Yes! Is this dream just pie-in-the-sky? No. As Henry Ford II once said "What’s right about America is that although we have a mess of problems, we have a great capacity—intellect and resources—to do something about them." And, as Thomas Wolf observed about America: "It is a fabulous country, the only fabulous country; it is the only place where miracles not only happen, but where they happen all the time."
Many must believe this about our country, for the list of those who have enlisted in America’s Promise is growing and distinguished. Notables such as Microsoft, Oracle, Lens Crafters and Kellogg are on the team. Political leaders such as Governor Pete Wilson of California, Governor Engler of Michigan, Governor Weld of Massachusetts, Governor Miller of Nevada and the Governor of your great state of West Virginia, Governor Underwood, have stayed with this effort, just to name a few.
Today, to this distinguished list we add the community of Morgan County, West Virginia. Your contribution and commitment is no less important than those names I rattled off, for our goals can only be achieved one community at a time, and one child at a time. You all are on the front lines of this effort, and I wish you well in this noble cause.
Thank you. Now let us get to work.