Remarks from President-elect Barack Obama during the 2006 City Year Chicago Ripples of Hope Awards Dinner

May 31, 2006

“I started out as a community organizer—that is what originally brought me to Chicago—so I am well aware, for all the City Year participants, that it is not always glamorous work. I know that you wake up sometimes, and say that ´This is too hard,´ and that ´I don’t feel like I am making enough of a difference,´ and ´I am frustrated, and nobody appreciates me,´ and that, I think, is the nature of a lot of service work. This is not a society that always values it. It certainly does not always reward it monetarily. Despite the fact that in all of life’s journeys there are always going to be disappointments and setbacks I notice that you are still doing it—you are doing it anyway, and I don’t think that it is just out of a sense of obligation. It’s not just because it makes you feel good. It’s also because you have genuinely come to care for the people that you work with—that you’ve seen the look of hope in a child’s face and that makes it worth while, that makes all the frustrations go away.”

“The only caution I have is this: as the City Year participants continue on in life it will not get easier; it will get harder. You will encounter all kinds of obstacles along the way and people who don’t put much stock in empathy. You will find people who, out of fear or the need for power, try to divide us and deny what we have in common. You will hear that American’s who sleep in the streets and beg for food got there because they’re lazy or they are weak in spirit. You will hear that immigrants, who risked their lives to cross a dessert because they just want to make a better life for their children, in fact, don’t belong here. You will hear that inner city children who are trapped in schools with not enough money—not enough resources—that these children can’t learn and won’t learn, so we should just give up on them. You will hear of innocent people who are being slaughtered or expelled from their homes, half-way around the world, are somebody else’s problem and not your problem. You are going to hear all this, and you’ll have to choose, at some point, where your obligations lie.”

“Now the easiest thing in the world to do is to do nothing, to turn off the TV set or to put down the paper and to walk away from the stories about Iraq, or Darfur, or poverty, or violence, or joblessness, or hopelessness, to go about your busy lives, wishing these problems away but expecting someone else to do it. There is no community service requirement in the real world. No one forces you to care. No one demands that you extend yourself. And after you leave City Year, you can go, if you choose, to chase after big bucks and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should want. I hope you don’t do that. I hope that you don’t lose the spirit that brought you here because if you do you will be displaying a poverty of ambition. Nothing’s easier than looking after yourself, but I hope that you do what’s hard, and knowing what you have done so far I think my hope is well placed.”