RED the Book: How to Turn Teenage All-About-Me-ism into Altruism

Obama's call to service for Martin Luther King, Jr., Day was two weeks ago today. But to my generation, I'm afraid it may as well have been issued by Abe Lincoln. It's already history.
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This post was written by Carey Dunne, 19, an author of RED the Book, a collection of personal essays written by 58 American teenage girls, recently released in paperback. She is a sophomore studying English at Oberlin College.

The Obamas' call to service for Martin Luther King, Jr., Day was two weeks ago today. But to my generation of Americans, I'm afraid it might as well have been issued by Abraham Lincoln. It's already history.

On the list of things I think of when I think of kids my age in this country, community service is buried way down -- under SAT prep, iPhones, My Super Sweet Sixteen, Ashton Kutcher. And even there, it tends to have a footnote that says "to get into a good college." Eighteen- to 22-year-olds were the most hyped demographic in this election. We were also the kids who shopped till we dropped and to whom volunteerism has generally meant either a boost into the Ivy League or donating hours photographing a friend for her MySpace profile.

But for several months back there, we canvassed and ran phone banks for Obama's campaign. We gave them our cell numbers so they could text us. We voted. With a bit of building on this momentum, my generation's often selfish approach to helping others could start to change. I'm sure the Obamas' MLK Day appeal was galvanized enough to convince some young people in this country to choose blood-giving and soup-serving over sleep and TV. Still, it was mostly older Americans who participated in community service projects on Monday, January 19 -- which was already a national holiday, so no one lost pay to do so.

But what about this Monday? And the next? These are hardly times when, during a normal work week, adults can spare a day's or even an hour's wage to help people in need. They need help themselves.

If you're a full-time student, however, the tradeoff is entirely different: It's a class, not a living wage, you'd be missing. And working in a shelter or a hospital would make students feel more powerful than just blobs filling in bubbles.

To put Obama's ideology into action, every high school and college in this country should require at least one hour a week of active community service from its students. This new volunteer workforce of 97 million Americans under age 25 would provide essential help in times when fewer employed adults can offer their time for free and not-for-profits are hurting.

One hour, that's it -- like a class, instead of a class, only not for grades. Absence of grades would be another element of the appeal of regular volunteerism to young people: a weekly break from the tyranny of competition and evaluation that goes with nearly everything else about school.

Organizations could alert local schools to their needs, then schools could offer a wide range of options in the community, from needle exchanges to chimpanzee refuges. In an ideal world, just knowing that you've helped another human being would be enough of a reward. But for most people, it helps if the cause feels like their own. If there's something students are into that's not on the list, they could nominate it -- furthering their sense of investment and rallying friends on its behalf.

The rewards come from there: The personal becomes the political, the communal, the national. My 16-year-old brother, whose school already requires community service, says that tutoring elementary-school kids reduces stress in his life.

Making community service as much a part of young Americans' weekly lives as algebra and reality shows would also have a powerful effect on my generation's ideas about race, privilege, and entitlement. The under-25 population contains the largest percentage of non-white and multiracial Americans, and we will be the first generation to reach a white minority in this country, as soon as 2023. To enlist every one of us in community service is to create the most diverse army of help any nation has ever seen.

Sadly and honestly, I'd say most people in this country see volunteerism as a history of the white and fortunate helping the not white and not fortunate. Perverse as it is, mandatory student community service has for the most part been exclusive to private-school curriculum--for the kids who can generally afford to spend Tuesdays after school at a nursing home or eight weeks river-keeping in Indonesia, rather than earning money for the family in a part-time job.

The summer after eleventh grade I went to Lima, Peru, with a volunteer organization whose aim was cross-cultural studies. Most of the kids in the program were upper-middle-class. Every morning we were chauffeured through shanty towns to a pre-school, where we watched kids learn numbers and sometimes sponged juice spills at snack time. The school didn't benefit in any obvious way from the lurking foreign teenagers.

Still, the other volunteers and I felt that we gained from the experience. However subtly or temporarily, our perspectives on privilege changed. We weren't transformed into teenage Gandhis, but the sense of entitlement to our iPods and big dorm rooms wavered. One girl told me it was the first time she'd ever felt genuinely unselfish.

If even well meaning but misguided volunteering helps the volunteers as much as it helps those they are supposedly serving, imagine the gains when kids who could really be on either side of the community-service equation are put on the giving, empowered end. Young people who grow up hearing every day at home that they are the charity cases can begin to escape that way of thinking -- to be met with respect and their own ability to affect change, starting with that one hour every week.

With kids of all races and classes on the serving side, stereotypes are exploded, boundaries are frustrated. No one segment of the population is perceived as more or less in need. No one segment of the population is the other, the giver or the taker of aid.

Right now, when lines stretch for blocks from soup kitchens, we need more than a few well-off people donating cans of yams from the back of their cupboards. Every one of the nation's young people could start contributing to a foundational American belief in service -- and finding something else extraordinary about themselves to cultivate and put in college-admissions essays.