Cocktail party discussions in the rambunctious boom years of the 1960s often ended in dark pronouncements for the next century. Upward trending population growth graphs collided with downward bar charts displaying resource depletion. A few brave souls uttered dark prophecies for the 2020s. They whispered about a world landscape filled with economic and environmental collapse. They claimed this would create a breeding ground for pandemics that would challenge our very survival.
America loves to terrorize and confine itself with a bipolar view of the world. The Ozzie-and-Harriet voices in our heads droned on with happy-talk. In George Jetson cartoons, we imagined escaping traffic gridlock in our flying cars. At the same time a Civil Defense doomsday voice commanded us to “duck and cover” beneath atomic mushroom clouds. Eventually Twilight Zone voices questioned these comedic survival tactics.
Many would finally ask, “What would be the value in surviving a Hiroshima-Nagasaki global extinction event? Could we still get sun tans during a nuclear winter?” The light-and-shadowed reality was so conflicted that our collective futures at times seemed to disappear into Allen Ginsberg’s poem: Howl.
Holding our ears against a collective “future wall”, some of us could hear the screaming coming from the streets beyond. Over time this noise competed with the Pollyanna voices calling out for scientific saviors wearing white coats. Science fiction became our last great hope (or escape). Will the people in lab coats bring us Dick Tracy video-watches and will the camera be used to collect data on our lives and the choices we make?
I personally only know of one antidote to alienation and disengagement in moments like these. That is the revitalizing of our communities by expanding community service options. In my time, the best study on how service and renew a culture is found in 1988 William T. Grant Foundation study and report about The Forgotten Half. This insightful manuscript laid out a vision for harnessing the potential of non-college youth to make a difference in rebuilding and renewing America. This student captures my mindset:
What matters to me is helping people in my community. Running a business is fine, but I want to use my entrepreneurship training in a different way. Creating a `meals on wheels’ program or a day care center for old people is like starting a business, even though making a profit isn’t the point.
~Student participating in a Rural Entrepreneurship Program (reported in REAL newsletter)
Later, in 1990 I was hired to do a statewide survey of the existing service-learning opportunities in my state and to suggest how how schools, community agencies, and members of the work place could expand youth-service-learning in the state of Washington. That report was entitled Imagine…Youth Service in Washington. The report included many quotations from statewide and national figures. In the end, the words of Martin Luther King summed up the report and the potential of youth service when he emphatically stated, “Everyone can be great because everyone can serve.”
The word pandemic has evolved from an historical term into a fearsome force, forever changing our lives. It has happened so quickly that many of us can no longer agree on what we see before us, or what our world has become.
A culture that long contented itself with assumed omnipotence now stands motionless and impotent behind a curtain of denial. We can’t see or feel the changing climate, stand silent before rising seas, remain mystified by virus variants. The cocktail party debate has withered into sighs and shrugs. Still—somehow—we raise a glass and feel called to make a toast. But to what?
As you raise your customized signature cocktail in the 2020s, be careful what you wish for; and wisely choose your words and vision.