A week ago, I had the honor of delivering a commencement address at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Ga. I extended hearty congratulations to the graduates on making one of the smartest choices of all—to give four years or so of their lives to the hard work of learning and to obtain a college degree. A strong education is a foundation stone upon which any civil society is built, and it’s always been a distinguishing feature of American culture to provide access to higher education for people of all means and any background.
But I also touched on another element of civil society—the vital work done by charities in American life. There are 1.5 million charities in the United States, and tens of millions of people who are engaged with these organizations as staff, volunteers, and donors. They promote education and literacy, faith, public health, anti-poverty work, environmental protection, care for the sick and aged, assistance for the disabled, children’s defense, animal welfare, and so much more. Increasingly, many of these charities do international work, exporting relief and aid and ideas to all parts of the world—whether it is democratic decision-making and the rule of law, food and clean water, or public health programs. If this incredible spirit of doing good were not so central a feature of American life, we would not be the nation we are, and the world would be the lesser for it.
Wherever there is some great need in this country, you will find groups devoted to meeting it. Wherever there is some great wrong in this country, you will find groups that are laboring to right it. And what keeps all of these groups going is the commitment of members, volunteers, and donors who could all be doing something else with their time.
The jobs we keep are just a part of who we are. The mark we leave in the world will be seen way beyond the places we go to work. People will see your character in the company you keep, the words you say, and the causes you serve.
I challenged every student in my audience to find something special that mattered to him or her, to find a meaningful calling to fulfill. We are all driven by different passions, but it is that pluralism of interests that, in the aggregate, creates a civil society. Some are passionate about fighting poverty or protecting the environment or combating disease. When we each pursue these passions, or multiple passions, we get closer to covering the whole. As someone who cares deeply about animals, I am so relieved that there are others who share a passion for correcting other social ills or problems.
As 2009 winds down as another year of progress and challenges on the animal protection front, all of us at The HSUS are keenly aware of the great needs of the thousands of organizations working in our field and in other fields driven by the same impulses of compassion, mercy, and kindness.
I hope you’ll be uplifted by our year-end victories video. This work, and this kind of progress, occurs because of the charitable spirit that infuses all people of good will.