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How to Make the World a Better Place Despite the Roadblocks and Naysayers

"The world was a cruel, unjust place and, far from saving it, I felt stuck in it. Then I learned that I should fight to change it anyway."

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I marched against the Iraq War, along with upwards of six million other people across the world, and President George Bush called it a “focus group.” Despite all of my phone banking and wonky obsessing, he was re-elected for a second term. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq raged on. Abu Ghraib hit the headlines. The wealth disparity yawned larger and larger. My first nonprofit job was one long exercise in disillusion and freelance writing was often alienating. I felt as if I had been sold a bill of goods. The world was a cruel, unjust place and, far from saving it, I felt stuck in it.

Looking for solace, I had lunch with my favorite professor from Barnard College, where I’d been an undergrad just a few years earlier. Professor Dalton was the one whose gospel of a true calling or arête (Plato), of a social contract (Rousseau), of the power of love (King), had set me on fire at 20 years old. I would leave his class vibrating with grand notions of what it meant to live an ethical, examined life, and how I might shape mine to reflect all this learning. Just five years later, I felt extinguished. The real world was not a place of perfect forms and pat answers. It was messy, bureaucratic, painful.

But instead of soothing me, it seemed that my professor had his own desperation to battle. “Where is your generation’s outrage?” he asked me. He told me stories of lecturing on the Holocaust, only to have one of his student’s ask, “Is this going to be on the test?” When I visited his classroom, slipping into a seat in the back, I saw laptop screens alight with Facebook and Zappos as he spoke passionately about the “miracle, mystery, and authority” of Dostoevsky.

The conspicuous lack of outrage, however, was not limited to the privileged. Consumerism and celebrity worship distracted the students that I worked with two afternoons a week at a low-income public high school. They were more interested in brand name bags and tight sneakers than fighting inequity. They wanted to know how they could get rich, not how the rich perpetuate systems of oppression.

And I couldn’t really blame them. The political and cultural landscape circa 2005 prized status over courage, safety over innovation, and pre-professionalism over finding one’s true calling. Anyone stubbornly dedicated to social change was destined for a harsh lesson in what Martin Seligman calls “learned helplessness” -- when one has grand expectations, and finds them repeatedly unfulfilled, the unavoidable next stop is Despair. It was a time when the wind was knocked out of our collective sails. I, for one, was left standing on the shore of my own good intentions wondering what ever happened to my dreams of “doing good.”

And then a new day dawned.

It would be hard to overstate Barack Obama’s significance in terms of his influence on young people and our notions of good works. I’m not talking exclusively about the thousands upon thousands of young people that joined his campaign, knocking on doors, sending text messages, descending on Iowa and Florida. Of course, those kids were transformed forever by their experience of standing up with a leader they finally believed in.

But there is a broader, even more profound effect that his leadership has had on us. It’s given us an opportunity to see our own sensibilities, our own idealism, our own complex identities reflected at the highest level. Barack Obama is the America we dreamed about when we were little kids sitting in that classroom with Dorito cheese under our nails. He is the grand symbol, the big victory, the fireworks that we so longed for.

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