The following interview took place September 1, 2009
TIME: So this is for our third annual national service issue. And that is a great thing. I remember last year we did one that was the setup for the national service summit that we did with you and Senator McCain. So it’s a year later The President: Which was very cool. That was a great forum.
Yes, it was terrific and it was in your old stomping grounds.
So a lot has changed since then. The Kennedy Serve America Act has been passed, which is fantastic. And we’ve done this enormous national poll about national service, and one of the things that we discovered, and other polls have shown this, too, is that, in fact, volunteering is down as a result of the recession, and civic participation is down. And when we did that last year it was a kind of great moment for us, and since then, the economy has gone down. I’m wondering what you make of that and what you think the significance of that is for national service.
The President: Well, I think that people are understandably anxious right now and feeling insecure economically. They are worried about home payments; they’re worried about bills; they’re worried about losing their health care; they’re worried about their 401s and whether or not they’re going to be able to afford to send their kids to college. And so I think that there’s an understandable sense that I really have to take care of home base right now and make sure that I’m doing everything I can to provide security for my family.
Now, I would argue that now is exactly the time where we need more volunteerism, not only because needs are greater, more people are hungry, more people are out of work, more people are falling through the cracks, but when I talk to young people, for example, I say to them now is the time to get experience since you may not be able to find a job right away get some experience doing some good for your country, and that will not only be in the interest of the people you help, but it’s going to be in your self-interest. You’ll get work experience, you’ll make contacts, you’ll network, you’ll expand your community in a way that ultimately will be good for you.
And I think that you’re going to start seeing a lot of young people finding that that makes sense. We were talking the other day to some young lawyers who were still at law school, and they’re not in a position now where it’s easy for them to necessarily to get placed in these law firms, making $150,000 a year, so you’re starting to see more of them now interested potentially in working in public service, working in government, Teach for America those kinds of options suddenly look a lot more attractive. So I think that the trend will change in the years to come.
And by the way, speaking of Teach for America, those applications are up. All of the AmeriCorps programs, those applications are up.
One of the things that our poll showed also, and also the National Conference on Citizenship poll about service showed this, too, is that people feel like their neighbors are actually less involved in the community than they used to be; that people are hunkering down, as you say, they’re looking out for their own. How do you make the argument in that kind of environment to people who are saying, like, hey, I’ve lost my job and you’re telling me to volunteer How does that work Does it make it a lot more difficult
Mrs. Obama: As the President said, I think that these are challenging times, but one of the things that we’ve talked about and I talk about among my friends is that now is the time to get involved in your church; now is the time to go to your kids’ school and participate as a parent/teacher in your parent/teacher conference. Go on a field trip. There are so many ways within your own community that you can get involved and you can add value to your own self-interest.
No matter where you are economically, you’re living in a community you’ve got kids in the public school system, and we all know that the public schools need as much support as they can get: parents reading to kids, people going on field trips, people monitoring recess. Those are things that you can do if you have time on your hands that add value to your home base.
But I think people sometimes have to be reminded of that in times where they feel like, as the President said, things are tough at home. But there are things to do at home that could make your home life better, and a lot of that involves engagement in your own community through volunteerism. And hopefully that continues when the economy turns around, that that doesn’t that’s not just something that you do when you’re out of work, but it becomes a part of your own culture, engaging in the lives of your kids, participating in Little League games, going to your churches and your synagogues and reading to kids, and on and on and on.
So part of what Barack and I have always tried to do is lead by example. We’re trying to do that in our own family, showing our kids that no matter where we are, whether times are good or bad, we have to be thinking about what we do for those of us around us. And what you’ll see us doing more of out of the First Lady’s Office, and what we’re doing throughout the White House is really trying to put those visions in action. That’s why you see us doing service so much. That’s why you see me taking the first week off so that I’m going to my kids’ school. That’s why you see the President going to parent/teacher conferences. And that’s why you’re going to see us working with military families and mentoring young girls in the community. Those are things that we can do today, tomorrow, no matter what our circumstances are.
And those are the kind of messages that I think that we have to continue to deliver to others so that they’re reminded of what’s possible even in times of trouble.
See TIME’s special report on community service.
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