ServiceNation Summit Co-Chair Calls For Rekindling Citizen Obligation To Society


Warning against Americans’ loss of the sense of the larger community and a retreat into their own specialized, isolated circles, Carnegie Corporation of New York President Vartan Gregorian urges citizens to work more closely together for broad societal benefits.

Watch video of Vartan Gregorian's speech.



Echoing President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration that “a genuinely free society cannot be a spectator society,” Gregorian calls for greater volunteerism in support of a compact America’s citizens have always had with their country: to join their personal aspirations for the future with their hopes for the progress of the nation.

In the Service of Our Nation, an essay published in conjunction with the ServiceNation Summit co-convened by Carnegie Corporation and TIME Magazine on September 11-12 in New York City, Vartan Gregorian sets the tone for the historic meeting on volunteering and national service by reminding Americans that voluntary associations serve as the sturdy backbone of our civil society, and that the people of this country have a long history of sharing what they have with others.

Gregorian argues that Americans have carried “individualism” to a new level of idolatry. Some have made it an icon, and an end in itself. Instantaneous communication and online technologies, for example, seem to connect us, yet they also contribute to a new cult of the individual, allowing us to report on the minutiae of our daily lives.

By elevating the individual to center stage in our crowded, complex, confusing and endlessly evolving world, it seems that each of us is occupied with celebrating our own supreme uniqueness thus escalating the trend toward individual isolationism as well as the ghettoization of discrete, unconnected interests. And in the process, writes Gregorian, what we are quickly losing is the sense of the larger community that draws us out of ourselves and our specialized, isolated circles and into the wider society.

Noting that our forefathers founded a land of opportunity, not a land of opportunists, In the Service of Our Nation argues that they signed the Declaration of Independence, wrote the Constitution and formulated the Bill of Rights with the faith that the ordinary citizen was committed to the accomplishment of extraordinary acts.

Recognizing the strength and number of our voluntary associations as the expression of our collective American nature, Gregorian, calls for ways of providing new and more various opportunities and incentives for more people to become volunteers and to contribute their time. He also identifies a need to decrease duplication, calling for the institution of cooperative efforts and collaborative projects that would allow for more effective targeting of available resources while freeing up other financial and human resources for equally critical needs.

The very idea of philanthropic citizens working together for societal benefits, says Gregorian, grew with our young nation, where colonists, pioneers and their descendants faced the stark reality of going without basic necessities if they did not help each other obtain them through cooperative effort.

The success of the post-ServiceNation Summit national campaign to rally Americans behind the idea that citizen service can strengthen our democracy will rest on what moral philosopher and father of modern capitalism Adam Smith described as the important connections between individual aspirations and the enlightened evolution of society, says Gregorian.

Calling our deep commitment to volunteerism one of the greatest antidotes we have to any pessimism we may hold about our collective future, Gregorian writes that there is nothing cynical or shallow about offering to lend a hand. Doing so is the opposite of so many of the ills that too often these days have characterized our society.

ServiceNation Summit, September 11-12 in New York City, will bring together 600 leaders of all ages and from every sector of American life —from universities and foundations to business and politics—to celebrate the power and potential of citizen service, and lay out a bold policy blueprint for addressing America’s greatest social challenges through expanded opportunities for volunteer and national service.

The ServiceNation Summit, underwritten by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York, is being co-chaired by Caroline Kennedy; Vartan Gregorian, Alma Powell, Chair of America’s Promise Alliance; Richard Stengel, Managing Editor, TIME; Bill Novelli, CEO of AARP; and Laysha Ward, President, Community Relations and Target Foundation.

Carnegie Corporation of New York was created by Andrew Carnegie in 1911 to promote “the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding.” For more than 95 years the Corporation has carried out Carnegie’s vision of philanthropy by building on his two major concerns: international peace and advancing education and knowledge. As a private grantmaking foundation, the Corporation will invest more than $100 million this year in nonprofits to fulfill Mr. Carnegie's mission, “to do real and permanent good in this world.” The Corporation’s capital fund, originally donated at a value of about $135 million, had a market value of more than $3 billion on September 30, 2007.