I had not expected eloquence. It was a long dinner; the speeches were not stirring. Then came the last speaker – a doctor overseeing the training of young physicians. His remarks were not only uninspired but downright troublesome.
“Folks,” he said “Altruism is dead. “Our young doctors do not want to work with poor people, and they want to be paid for night calls and weekends. I don’t know what we are going to do.”
He was in despair, and understandably so. A recent study from the Pew Charitable Trusts found today’s youth indicating a desire to be rich and famous above all else. They spend less time with adults than any previous generation, preferring to shut out the world with electronic devices plugged into their ears. However, the younger generations do want to make a difference. Many participate in community service, but until the recent presidential campaigns, have eschewed politics and its messiness.
The reality is that the world today is a bewildering place. All of us – young and old – are more mobile and less connected to our hometowns. Our disillusionment was fed in my day by communism and the Cuban missile crisis.
Today’s youth faces a less centered threat – instant carnage carried out by madmen on college campuses from Illinois to Virginia. Our transactions with others are, by their nature, less personal. We’re all connected to each other technically but not personally. We use e-mail codenames and can be someone we’re not with no consequences. Twenty years ago “identify theft” didn’t exist. Now it’s the fastest growing crime in the world.
But look now at the presidential campaigns and watch how youth are engaged. They embrace messages of hope and gravitate to candidates on both sides of the aisle who give them hope for their future. And in turn, they are shaping elections.
Everywhere, young people are becoming formed in their own ways, engaging in community development activities, peering beyond their iPods and leading change.
Take Inez, Ky., for example. The town has seen difficult times and slow progress over the years. Deep in the heart of Appalachia, it is home to Renaissance man Jim Boothe, a gifted entrepreneur and businessman determined to see advancement in his hometown.
Boothe is complemented by a young mayor and councilman who ran for and assumed office with the goal to transform their community. The young economic-development professional, who left a job on the national stage to return home, put it this way: “I love this place and see the possible – I want to help everyone appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of our way of life.”
Together they are working to develop a downtown centerpiece office building that can serve as the hub of activity.
For his part, Matt Doane, a just-graduated senior at Henry County High School, chose a unique senior class project. He organized a voter-registration drive for his classmates and invited me to be the keynote speaker. He reports that his drive was nearly 100 percent successful! Maybe the tide is turning; maybe our kids just need us to give them a reason to be part of something bigger than themselves.
As a final example of hope, consider a dynamic group of Morehead State University students who participated in the Morehead NewCity Initiative conducted by the NewCities Institute. Through the process they learned about community building, shared their own visions and espoused how they could leave the college better than they found it. The effort recently won the 2008 Youth Innovator Award by the Southern Growth Policies Board.
Truth be known, young people are organizing community forums and networking all over Kentucky – in person and online. They are dreaming big and willing to roll up their sleeves to make those dreams come true.
Who knows, maybe some young Kentucky dreamers will aspire to become physicians or researchers and will revolutionize our ailing health-care system. I hope the doctor from the dinner is around to see it.