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Top Obama adviser addresses citizenship

Published: March 25, 2011
Section: Front Page


Photo by Nafiz “Fizz” Ahmed/the Hoot

Director of President Barack Obama’s Domestic Policy Council Melody Barnes spoke about the importance of service and being an engaged citizen at Brandeis University Wednesday.

“Citizenship, in my opinion, is a verb,” Barnes said to an audience of 200 in Levin Ballroom, advocating that citizens should play an active role in their communities.

In a time when the nation is trying to overcome an economic crisis while potentially cutting service programs like Americorps, Barnes said the role of community leaders was crucial to help the nation prosper.

“We could let the economic parade of horrors paralyze us, but this is not a time for tepid measures,” she said. “We have an opportunity to position America to win the future, and if past is prologue, we will,” despite the nation’s tough times.

Citing the examples of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, who respectively started the New Deal and the Peace Corps during times of national strife, Barnes said times of trouble allow the government the opportunity to create “sweeping expansions.”

“We are not simply going through the motions when it comes to national service,” she said. “The government is building a foundation for a better future.”

Barnes emphasized that though the Obama administration has taken measures to encourage public service, like the president’s signing of the Senator Edward Kennedy Serve America Act within his first 100 days in office, it is up to the American people to take up the cause as well.

“The government can’t solve all of the problems we have, nor should it,” she said. “For all the work we do in Washington, it is the active, engaged citizenship that is going to leverage that and work towards our dreams.”

Barnes spoke at an event to honor Eli J. Segal ’64, a Brandeis alumnus and entrepreneur who worked with President Bill Clinton to found the Corporation for National and Community Service. Present at the event were members of the Eli J. Segal Citizen Leadership Program and many of the fellows the program funds each summer to participate in public service programs and internships.

Barnes said students should use Segal as an example of how to lead lives of service.

“If there were a picture in the dictionary beside the word ‘public servant,’ it would be of [Segal],” she said. “He showed how ordinary citizens can be change agents in their town, in their country and in our world.”

During the question and answer period, one student questioned the ability of public service organizations to help communities at a time when organizations like Americorps—which Segal himself helped found—are on the chopping block as the United States Congress attempts to balance the national budget.

Barnes said that the maintenance of Americorps was a priority to the president and that she was not concerned with the outcome of the battle over the budget, which has not been finalized, and attributed the student’s concern to the way new media has changed politics.

“Nowadays, because of the Internet, people see the sausage making up-close and personal and there is visceral reaction to it,” she said. Citing last year’s passage of national health care reform, Barnes said, “the system does work, has worked and will continue to work.”

Part of what makes the system work, she said, is willingness to compromise.

“It is important to have a strong sense of where you want to go, where is your North Star,” she said. “But you also need to know when to cut a deal, when you will take half your loaf of bread today so you can have the rest someday.”