Last evening, Congress passed a historic national service act designed to bolster programs for civic engagement and volunteering. It's a terrific piece of legislation giving more Americans a chance to be heroes. But its passage made me wonder why our country needs so many heroes. Take for instance, my cousin -- I recently found out that he is hero. He serves in Iraq. Brian was responsible for delivering to safety three men when an IED disabled their vehicle, and insurgents had them pinned down. His CO has requested a medal for him, I hope he gets it.
I'm like most Americans; I like underdogs and hot dogs (Chicago style with tomatoes and pickles). I like football. I believe that hard work is the surest way to create luck. And I believe that courage is a fundamental virtue, one at the core of the American experience.
It was what sustained immigrants as they came to their new home. It lit the path to freedom for those brought here by force. Courage protected our country in time of war and those who marched to make it better in times of peace.
The personal embodiment of all that courage is our heroes. Americans have a wildly diverse set of heroes and you can tell much about us by whom we admire. There are those who cherish Ronald Reagan, Robert F. Kennedy, John Wayne, Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Malcolm X.
As a community organizer, my heroes are less well known. I think of Yesenia, who, because she is undocumented, is a profile in courage every time she leaves the house, drives the car, or goes to work. I think of Mark, who I saw toil at multiple dead end jobs for years to keep his family together, and who one day had the courage to stand in public and tell the story of how brokers had sold him a mortgage he couldn't afford, and that he now faced losing his home. I think of Mary, who after the death of her nephew, decided that, no matter how big the healthcare interests, no matter how long it took, or the cost, there would be an accounting for the suffering that greed created.
I have known and loved these heroes. But I hate the fact that they exist. See, heroes don't just show up. People don't wake up and while brushing their teeth decide "Today, I will place my comfort and safety at risk. Today I will work harder than anyone, and quite possibly fail, for something I know is right. Today I will be a hero".
No, you do not decide to be a hero, you are created. It is extraordinary circumstances that create heroes, and these circumstances are seldom benign.
For my cousin, it happened when men he loved were put in harms way. Mark became one when the banks tried to steal the shelter that kept his family together. Mary did so when she realized that the loss she experienced personally was being replicated around the country. Yesenia became a hero the day that raids became commonplace and work a crime. They didn't choose these roles, they were thrust on them. And that stinks.
We should have a country that has no need for heroes. One in which you can get health care, save your home, work in peace. We have the ability to do this. Even in the midst of crises we remain the most powerful country on Earth.
I believe firmly that what this country needs, wants, and what it must have if we are to prosper again is a focus on community values of shared responsibility and shared sacrifice.. That's why I organize, and why I work so hard to get others to do the same. If there is one thing we saw clearly in the debate around the stimulus, it is that entrenched interests in both parties are the biggest obstacle in our path. And right now, with so much on the line, we need to ensure that they do not prevail.
We know from history, that for change to happen, we must have a bold president and an electorate willing to have his back. This is the only way to seize the opportunity presented by crises and act to change the fundamental structures that put us here.
Were we stand right now is with a President that has laid out a bold vision. But that cannot become real if we, those that chose him, are silent. We need to become active in ways that this country sees only once in a generation. We need to all act with consistency and determination to support an agenda that includes healthcare, immigration reform and fair banking laws. We cannot fail -- even America cannot create enough heores to save us from the repercussions of missing this opportunity. I believe our president has the capacity for greatness, but not if we let him stand alone. Mass public action is what this country needs most of all if we are going to create the change we so clearly demand.
So I write this, spread the word, make another round of calls. And I implore you to do the same. And after the last conversation, the last call. After I brush my teeth and get ready for bed. I'll pray. I'll pray for all the Yesenias, the Marks, the Mary's, for the safe return of my cousin Brian and all who serve. And last, as I do every night, I'll pray,
for no more heroes.
Gabe Gonzalez is the National Director for the Campaign for Community Values at the Center for Community Change. The Campaign for Community Values brings together hundreds of diverse grassroots groups to win real victories for low-income communities, challenge the "on your own" mentality of the right and build a new politics for the common good.