History is sometimes intimidating. Especially on days like today, we think of the Patriots in Concord firing the first shot of independence, the suffragists in New York taking to the streets for their rights, and the activists in Selma standing strong for equality. We hear stories of challenges and greatness in the past — the moments that made American history — and are overwhelmed at times by their magnitude. They won independence, expanded suffrage, and secured civil rights. They did all that: it’s been done. What are we supposed to do now? How can we meet their legacy? Where can we go, and what can we do?
We can start, I think, by remembering what these great moments have in common. These generations of Americans realized their time was marked by a opportunity to make progress — be it political, cultural, or economic — and they seized it to make history. And this generation, a generation evidently eager to do the same, should realize that we too can make a difference, in our own way. And that the world needs us to.
This desire for impact is well documented. Not only are we Millennials interested in the world around us, but we are also committed to being involved positively in it. The former is strikingly seen in the impressive participation rate in the past election. Students and young adults were engaged by both parties, taking part in campaign activities and voting at the polls at the highest rate in the past 50 years. And even after we turned the page on the poetry of the campaign, we have remained interesting in the prose of day-to-day service. The National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 27 percent of graduating seniors in 2009 plan to work for nonprofit groups or government; another survey by the Partnership for Public Service found that 90 percent would be interested in a federal government job. And according to UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, 66.3 percent of college freshmen said it is “essential or very important” to help others — the highest percentage in 25 years. This generation spends more hours in community volunteer work and service projects than any generation before it. This blend of political action and public service means that we want to show our patriotism through action — inside government and out. We want to serve our country.
But the nature of that service need not be defined by the traditional models of the past. As a recent Pew study, found, we realize that our generation is unique, and what makes us unique? “Technology use” most of us said. This survey, fittingly titled “The Millenials: Confident, Connected, Open to Change” went on to describe the profound role of technology for this generation: “Millennials’ technological exceptionalism is chronicled throughout the survey. It’s not just their gadgets — it’s the way they’ve fused their social lives into them… Millennials have been leading technology enthusiasts.” We live our lives online, and we have realized that technology can be used to make life better — more so than any other demographic. Technological innovation, the survey concludes, is the Millenials’ badge of generational identity; it is who we are.
And it’s what we should do.
What we bring to the table is an eagerness to serve, a passion for change, and a comfort with modern technologies: all things in high-demand for governments, struggling to provide essential services because of out-of-control budgets and outdated processes. The very tools we use casually everyday are in need urgently inside government, from the State Department to City Hall.
Tech volunteers working with the Crisis Commons made a huge difference in the Haiti Earthquake relief earlier this year; grassroots mappers using homebrew balloons and camera rigs are helping to track the Gulf oil spill. Others are crowdsourcing investigative journalism, or building tools for government transparency.
But it’s not just grand crises that call for our involvement; making the world a better place begins right where we live.
And one of the biggest problems government has today is doing more with less.
Consider for example traditional 311 services. If you’re walking along the street and see a street light out, what can you do? You can get out your cell, call the city to report it; a municipal worker has to pick up the call, transcribe the information, submit it to the public works department manually, and then send staff out to document your report. This costs the city money and time, and just as importantly, who really wants to close Facebook or stop texting to make that call? That’s just not how we communicate. If technology has already changed the way we work, and the way we talk, why can’t it change the way we govern? It can. The Open311 API, for example,allows developers and entrepreneurs to build simple but powerful apps which make it easy to report issues: you just tweet it. And that’s just the start.
This kind of innovation is about more than just fixing potholes. It’s about re-imagining governance for the 21-century — helping government catch up with us, move as quickly as we do, and speak in our terms.
That’s what we’re about here at Code for America.
It’s time we have our own American Revolution.