For the past five years, the Obama administration has honored more than 1,300 ordinary citizens who drove positive changes every day in their communities with a “Champions of Change,” (COC) award. These award winners came from a broad sector of advocacy and policy reform – foster care, employment, disability, veterans, environment, health care, LGBTQ, technology, homelessness, children of incarcerated parents, arts, education, and much more.
On December 5, 2016, about 400 award-winners attended a reunion meeting in Washington D.C. There were many tearful moments from both the audience and the presenters, including when exiting Environmental Protection Agency Director Gina McCarthy told us not to not give up hope, or when Mark Barden, father of 7-year-old Daniel who died in the Sandy Hook massacre, talked about using his grief to focus on reducing gun violence.
There was a theme throughout the day – that this is a marathon, not a sprint. And, talking with fellow COC winners, it was clear that often the best solutions come from ordinary citizens who act locally and think globally. Many of us talked about the recent success of the demonstration at Standing Rock, about how the turning point came when over 2,000 veterans joined with elected officials, environmentalists, the Sioux tribe and ordinary citizens to stop the U.S. Army of engineers from building an oil pipeline which would cross near sacred burial sites and could pollute drinking water. The demonstration remained peaceful, even after the Morton County Sheriff’s Department tried to disperse the crowds with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons sprayed in freezing temperatures.
A former community organizer, the POTUS himself sent out this tweet:
The reunion meeting was a call to action for all of us, and those we represent, to continue to transform our world by being the change we’ve been waiting for. History has taught us that great social change can come from either party. Republican President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation; Democratic President Johnson created the Great Society programs, and Republican President Reagan signed our last immigrant amnesty program.
Most of the signatories on this blog are either former foster youth or child welfare/education advocates. And, it seems appropriate that this call to action is coming from this subset of the Champion of Change winners, for foster youth can be viewed as the canary in the coalmine for our society. Foster care is a bi-partisan issue since nearly all Americans agree that foster youth – children who are abandoned by their parents most often due to neglect or poverty rather than abuse – are the collective responsibility of all Americans. When they are abandoned, all of us become their new parents. Even for the few Americans who don’t feel we are all responsible for these children, the economics of the situation are compelling. Not only do these youth end up costing society a lot more money, whether it’s through public services or entering the correctional system, we lose out as a society due to their missed potential earned income and their unexplored ideas.
Our current U.S. policies must significantly change in order to improve our economy, bridging the growing and expanding gap between the haves and have nots. U.S. policy should not be tailored to the few billionaires but, instead, hold the rich and powerful accountable to the ordinary American citizen, including our foster youth.
Democracy is not a spectator sport – and civic engagement requires regular exercising.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
By former Champion of Change Winners Lupe Tovar, Nicole Dobbins, Yali Lincroft, Sixto Cancel, Sokhom Mao, John Hogan, David Ambroz, Nell Bernstein, Dee Ann Newell, Ann Adalist-Estrin, Carol Burton, Jeffries Epps, and Cyndi Tercero.