As the state’s newly sworn-in Chief Service Officer, I am thrilled and honored for the opportunity to lead California Volunteers in order to strengthen the civic health of the Golden State through promoting service, volunteerism and civic engagement. However, it is not lost on me that I assume this position at a time when we remember a day of such significance to our country: 9/11.
On this day 18 years ago I was sleeping in my college room, when the phone rang. My mother’s voice sounded as I had never heard before, “Turn on the TV”, she said. When I did I saw what all of you old enough to remember saw. What the world saw.
In a matter of hours, everything changed as blanketing a time of great mourning and a thick fog of deep uncertainty rolled over the country. Yet, as I reflect on 9/11, I find myself nostalgic for the one glimmer of hope during those days and weeks and months after, when, in the shadow of that dark day, we stood united. One community. One nation. One people.
9/11 was a tragedy that forever changed this country, but intertwined with this history is a time of breathtaking willingness to serve each other: Firefighters, nurses, blood donors, philanthropists, everyone. The weight of the new reality moved us to a place of real, authentic empathy and connection with ourselves and others. It gave us an authentic sense of common identity. We were connected, united.
Today I cannot help but look back to the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Eight years ago I sat on a soft, brown, leather sofa in my Japanese apartment, a few miles from the Navy base in Yokosuka, where I was stationed. From across the world, I watched our country reflect and pay somber respect to those we lost, much like we are today.
I remember, at that time, feeling the weight of a people underwhelmed. Underwhelmed by what we had achieved abroad, by the civility and effectiveness of our political leaders in D.C., by how our lives had changed— or not.
Since 9/11 less than 1 percent of our country has served in the armed forces. While serving overseas, away from the shores of America, I began understanding where we had gone and continue to go wrong as a society, and what it will take to reunite us.
Service is our pathway to unity. It gives us purpose— a common mission, a shared experience, a special connection to a loved one, or a complete stranger, a genuine sense of being needed and valued by those we touch.
That is why the way we will truly never forget 9/11 is through our service to each other.
The virtues of sacrifice and service have been extolled since the founding of our nation. It should not be lost on us that in a country created to ensure every individual the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we lionize those who sacrifice for the good of the nation. We celebrate the ‘Citizen-Soldier’ George Washington, George H.W. Bush, Joe Louis, Elvis Presley, Pat Tillman, and others who stepped away from the civilian comfort of daily lives to risk everything for us. We do so because their acts embody the essence of self-government. The need for a citizenry willing to step-up, serve and donate their time, resources, talent, and if necessary, life, to the community.
But let me be clear— service is not, and cannot be just for the few, whether military service members, teachers, police officers, firefighters, Peace Corps members, or community leaders.
Service is the student in Oakland leading a community garden project at their high school. Service is the abuela in the Central Valley who volunteers at her church program to feed the hungry, and the immigrant father in Los Angeles who coaches soccer for his kids. Service is the young AmeriCorps member in Lake Tahoe tackling climate change, and the retired worker in Stockton reading to low-income kids after school.
Regardless of what it’s called or how it’s done, if it’s intentional to solve a problem in our community, or make a difference in the life of another person, it’s service. No matter how grand or subtle, it all matters and moves us forward. It unites us.
Governor Newsom embodies this hope and commitment to service and civic engagement. He calls himself a Sargent Shriver Democrat, after the founder of the Peace Corps, and together, we’re building a California For All. A California where everyone — not just the fortunate few — can achieve the California dream. It means showing up for each other, having a voice in government, and ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard. The only way of achieving it is by joining forces, working and serving as one California.
It is my office’s responsibility to create the opportunities to serve, so we can tackle the biggest challenges in our communities and lift each other up. Service is at the heart of how a California For All will achieve a brighter future because it does not discriminate, it has no walls, and no barriers to entry. As Martin Luther King told us, “Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve.”
Let us all be great because we serve our communities, and let us never forget those we lost on 9/11 by serving one another.