I don’t know enough about Sargent Shriver (just like I don’t really know enough about the 60′s, the War on Poverty, the Kennedys and LBJ, Civil Rights- you know what, let’s just not worry about what I don’t know enough about.) But I know he was a cool dude, from a complicated but cool era. As a serving AmeriCorps VISTA, I count myself one of the thousands of heirs to his legacy. I owe him a debt of gratitude, which can only be repaid through my own commitments to service, justice, and an America that lives up to the visions of my parents and their generation from that age of possibility.
He founded the Peace Corps, an agency whose implementation has occasionally failed to wholly meet the expectations of its founding vision, but nonetheless outlined a concept of peace and foreign policy that, in today’s world, seems so foreign (at least, in government- the private sector certainly has its own articulations of positive peace and justice). In that way his organization is perfectly American, embodying the potential heights to which our spirits can lift us, if only we would live up to all that we hope to be.
He was the ‘General’ of the War on Poverty, founding the Shriver Poverty Law Center, Head Start, Volunteers In Service To America (VISTA, which preceded AmeriCorps, and was intended to be the ‘domestic Peace Corps’), and Job Corps. The idea of a War on Poverty, an active and engaged mission to decide as a country not to accept a state of affairs, again, seems so foreign now. That we could talk explicitly not just about the middle class, not just about the skills gap and educational deficit, not just about the uninsured, but explicitly about poverty. A condition which, more and more, we are discovering has huge ramifications for human development and potential, which frames the lives of millions of Americans. We are so far from that conversation today, having replaced the moral charge to create a society that doesn’t accept poverty with a technical and programmatic approach to ‘problems’ and ‘issues’.
Yes, it existed amidst terrible, state-sponsored racial inequity and injustice, during a time of great violence and conflict. But again, it was the articulation of a culture that was at least aspiring toward something greater. This isn’t to be overly nostalgic and fatalistic regarding our present state- I really think our generation is on the cusp of reviving this culture and bringing it back into the driver’s seat. But in an era of ‘competitiveness’, it suggests we have a long way to go before we can hope for a similar view of government responsibility to take hold.
To bring it to the personal, while I have always been critical of the failings of VISTA, my feeling about it is similar to my feelings about government as a whole: it is imperfect, but it fills a role for which there is no substitute. I am proud to serve in a national corps of my peers, across the country, all engaged in the halting, jerky, difficult work of alleviating the day to day conditions of poverty, while also learning enough and working in our own small ways to replace the shoddy foundations of our society. VISTA isn’t perfect, but it is indispensable, and deserves our effort and love.
Here are some other accounts of Sargent Shriver:
David Israel: Sarge (the Democratic Reagan)
Russell Simmons (co-founder, Def Jam): We Do This For Young People: In Tribute to Sargent Shriver
I’m often one to be frustrated with the failings of my parent’s generation, of the flawed things they left us with. But they dreamed like we do, they built great things like we hope to do, they learned lessons that hopefully we can have a little bit of a head start on learning for ourselves. I’m happy to honor the folks who were a part of that movement in our history, and hope to honor them beyond words through the revival of that spirit they carried for a time. Thanks, Sarge.