Philadelphia has always been a place of new beginnings. Our nation was born here. Our Constitution was forged here. Under William Penn, freedom of religious expression as we know it took root here.
Twenty years ago, on April 28, 1997, another remarkable event happened here. At Independence Hall, the living presidents – Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and Nancy Reagan on behalf of her husband — gathered to focus the nation on the needs of young people. Never before had all the presidents convened to confront an issue of national importance.
Invoking the language of 1776, the presidents declared that, just as all Americans have inalienable rights, we have undeniable responsibilities as citizens — to each other and, especially, to our young people. They called for commitment from each of us to help make good on the promise of opportunity for every child.
From the Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future was born America’s Promise — an alliance dedicated to bringing together citizens from every walk of life to improve the lives of children and youth.
Under the leadership of Colin and Alma Powell, America’s Promise has united more than 400 national organizations, thousands of communities, and millions of individuals in this cause. I believe it is no coincidence that, during these past two decades, we have seen stirrings of a revival of the American spirit of community.
We have seen dramatic decreases in teen pregnancy and teen alcohol and drug abuse. We have seen communities transformed through collaborative effort. We have seen millions more caring adults volunteer as mentors. In the wake of the GradNation campaign America’s Promise launched in 2010, we have seen high school graduation rates climb to unprecedented heights — even in places where so many young people once were allowed to drift away without a diploma that their schools were labeled “dropout factories.”
As we mark the 20th anniversary of the movement the presidents called into being in Philadelphia, we have reasons for hope, and even for celebration.
But we must also acknowledge how far we remain from America’s founding ideal. Too many children still have too little opportunity for the pursuit of happiness. Too many remain alienated from what we cherish as an inalienable right.
Too many children wake up each day hungry. Too many have no one who sees to it that they eat breakfast, or do their homework, or even go to school, or who cares what they did all day outside of school, or when they’re coming home, or what they’ll eat for dinner or whether they get enough sleep.
Too many face challenges that are difficult for anyone to overcome, and nearly impossible to overcome alone.
For too many children, the accident of growing up in a certain neighborhood still is the most reliable predictor of whether they will have a real chance at success.
So we must rededicate ourselves to the work that the presidents called us in Philadelphia to take into our own hands. As America’s Promise has always understood, none of us can meet the challenge alone. It takes commitment. It requires cooperation. It demands persistence.
And it starts with a recognition that, in the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “all of us are caught in a network of inescapable mutuality.” America’s children are our children. Each of us has a stake in their well-being. Each of us has a responsibility.
We must hold onto the promise for which we have fought and continue to fight.
If we don’t recommit to fulfilling the American Dream for these young people, we could find ourselves lost in an American nightmare. But if we marshal the power we have together, we can fulfill the amazing promise within every child.
Each of us can do something. All of us must do something. Each time any of us helps a child in need, we advance our democracy. We inch a bit closer to achieving America’s founding dream for all.
When the children of Israel crossed the Jordan River into Canaan, the priests stood in the riverbed. They remained there until all the children had made it safely into the Promised Land.
In America today, we share a similar civic and moral duty. Let us recommit ourselves to the cause the presidents called us to join 20 years ago. Let us rededicate ourselves to helping see each child safely into the land of Promise, where they enjoy the chance to reach for their own American dream.
Former Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr. is president and CEO of Amachi, a faith-based mentoring program, and a board member of America’s Promise Alliance. For more information, visit www.recommit2kids.org.