The launch of the National Conference on Volunteering and Service Monday night brought a huge crowd of people out to hear First Lady Michelle Obama speak, among other familiar faces.
When I arrived, the throngs of people waiting in line to go through security matched the throngs of people already inside the hall, and everyone was waiting for Michelle Obama. Helping the time fly was comic/emcee Wally Collins who made fun of individual audience members between introducing musical acts like Sondre Lerche and the Glide Ensemble. Also in the lead-in to the main event, Shawn Rubin accepted the Eli Segal Award from AmeriCorps Alums, Alan Khazei of Be the Change, Inc., spoke introducing corporate sponsor Shannon Schuyler of PriceWaterhouseCoopers.
The highlight of the night didn’t come at the end, as I would have expected. Michelle Obama took the stage somewhere in the middle of the opening event, and everyone in the crowd cheered and stood if they could. Her words were inspiring of course, but I was more stunned by the simple fact of her presence—the President’s wife chose to spend time with us. She used to run a Public Allies AmeriCorps program—and said to start that she was with her people. What I liked the best about what she said was the reaction she and President Obama received when they each decided to forego lucrative careers for nonprofit jobs—Mrs. Obama at Public Allies and Pres. Obama at various nonprofits like the Developing Communities Project where he was a community organizer. She said, regarding people in our lives who dismiss our career choices: “But what these folks don’t understand is that the story of progress in this nation has always been the story of people who chose — in times of trial and struggle — to serve it.”
Mrs. Obama also announced the launch of the United We Serve summer of service initiative, which will last through Sept. 11th of this year, which will make community service easy to do for anyone, and focus on health care, energy independence, education, and community & economic renewal.
In addition to the First Lady, other government leaders spoke, including:
- Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)
- Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger
- Corporation for National and Community Service leaders Alan Solomont (board chair) and Nicola Goren (Acting CEO) — speaking in this clip with Michelle Nunn of the Points of Light Institute and Hands On Network.
Other highlights included currently-serving AmeriCorps members — they are usually my favorite voices because service and its impact are all very real to them— there is no rhetoric:
- To start off the official opening, an Tomika Townley a City Year corps member sang the National Anthem
- Laura Kaneko an AmeriCorps member with Girls Inc introduced First Lady Michelle Obama
- Rocker Jon Bon Jovi — who was also at the Service Nation summit last fall — he spoke Monday, then sang
- Actor Matthew McConaughey — who came on so late in the evening that I am relieved to hear some crowd left to cheer him on. (I left sometime before 7 pm — the event was scheduled to end at 6:30.)
One of my favorite exchanges of the evening was a sit-down interview with Alan Khazei and Maria Shriver—Khazei asked the questions of Shriver whose life is so embedded with service to community and country that it’s hard to summarize. You can see the interview here — what I liked the best about what Shriver—California’s First Lady— said was, the reason she wanted Karen Baker, the head of California Volunteers, to become a member of Governor Schwarzenegger’s Cabinet. Shriver said she wanted volunteering and service to be at the table alongside homeland security and other issues, and to be taken seriously. New York is the only other state where the head of the commission on volunteering and service has been elevated to the Cabinet, and there’s a movement afoot to urge more governors to do so.
Though the rhetoric of a long afternoon of speeches grew a bit tiring, the overarching message of the opening session was that national service and volunteerism actually have a place in the agenda of some of our national and state leaders.