January 21, 2009

Welcoming a New Era

[A similar version of this post appeared in Bread for the City’s most recent quarterly newsletter, City Helpings. To subscribe to our mailings, email info{at}breadforthecity{dot}org with the subject “newsletter”]

As I watched the inauguration of our country’s 44th President yesterday, I was overcome with the incredible energy in the air throughout our city. And considering the path ahead, I was struck by the force of the momentum of this occasion: President Barack H. Obama comes to office now amidst high hopes and incredible challenges of a breathtaking scale.

We welcome the new President, and call upon him to fulfill his campaign promises: among them to provide health care for all, to help businesses create jobs that pay living wages, and to support community initiatives that will combat poverty.

He has lots of work to do. We all do.

A year and a half ago, President Obama gave a major address on poverty in Anacostia, a few miles from our Southeast Center:

We stand not ten miles from the seat of power in the most affluent nation on Earth. Decisions are made on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue that shape lives and set the course of history. With the stroke of a pen, billions are spent on programs and policies; on tax breaks for those who didn't need them and a war that should've never been authorized and never been waged. Debates rage and accusations fly and at the end of each day, the petty sniping is what lights up the evening news.

And yet here, on the other side of the river, every other child in Anacostia lives below the poverty line. Too many do not graduate and too many more do not find work. Some join gangs, and others fall to their gunfire.

The streets here are close to our capital, but far from the people it represents. These Americans cannot hire lobbyists to roam the halls of Congress on their behalf, and they cannot write thousand-dollar campaign checks to make their voices heard. They suffer most from a politics that has been tipped in favor of those with the most money, and influence, and power.

How can a country like this allow it?

No matter how many times it's asked or what the circumstances are, the most American answer I can think of to that question is two words:

"We can't."

We can’t allow it. It’s not who we are. Americans are a diverse and proud people, working together to overcome adversity. We demand dignity and respect, and at the same time, we give generously of ourselves.

But for more than three decades, the American Dream has fallen increasingly out of the reach of so many. During that time, Bread for the City has served the tens of thousands of our neighbors who have slipped through the cracks. We’ve done it with the support of concerned, compassionate community members; proof positive that, yes, an inspired community can provide respectful, effective care for the most vulnerable among us.

I am proud of all we have accomplished, and all that our partners in the community have accomplished. But we can only catch people as they are falling. We cannot change the conditions that make it perilously easy for people to fall in the first place. True, sweeping change can come only through a dynamic balance of committed and determined leadership from above, and robust grassroots action from below.

And now we’ve come to the beginning of a new era. The coming year is a decisive moment, in which President Obama will set forth to realize this vision of America that we share. He has made great promises over the past two years – many of which, as he himself acknowledges, will not be easy to fulfill.

President Obama promised an expansion of health care to cover every American. He has promised to create programs that will increase access to affordable housing and increased access to food stamps. And he has called for a renewed societal commitment to service in all forms – service like that which is done by the volunteers who work hard every day right alongside me in Bread for the City’s offices.

Volunteers like Deanna Drake, who recently told her story about working with a homeless man on this blog. It’s her service, and the service and commitment of thousands of Bread for the City volunteers and donors, that compels me to believe President Obama when he says that we can and must take action to affect change, in spite of great difficulty. And it’s how I know that we can’t wait for President Obama to singlehandedly bring this change himself. We must work in partnership with him – citizens, community organizations, and government combining our efforts to overcome the great difficulties of our time.

At Bread for the City, we’re committed to this role. In the last several years, a faltering economy and decaying social infrastructure have caused an increase in demand for every one of our services, and we are rising to this challenge on all fronts. The size of our legal clinic has doubled in just a few years. Our food program has recently seen an annual increase of 20% in the number of bags we distribute. We’ve just hired our second full-time staff physician for our medical clinic, which has itself seen annual increase of 20% in the number of visits we receive. All of this growth was made possible by your support.

And we will only be able to maintain this increased service level with the continued—and increased—support from our community.

I find hope in this moment of crisis. As bleak as the economic outlook may be, we also find ourselves facing a great opportunity. For too long, the poor have been invisible to our media, and absent from our leaders’ agendas – even absent from their campaign speeches. Finally, people are thinking about those who are ground down to desperation by forces beyond their control. Our country is increasingly aware of the growing millions who need the kind of help we give here in Bread for the City every day. Now is the time to be bold in our commitment to change.

Bread for the City is determined to carry on, to meet the rising level of need in our community. We are determined to do as we have done for over thirty years: to expand, to grow, to do more. We are excited to engage in this new chapter alongside President Obama, and greatly hope to help him carry out his promises to reduce poverty and ensure viable, humane health care for all.

Our work is needed now more than ever – and, indeed, our hope for the future only grows stronger.

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