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Engaging young Bostonians in citizenship

OUR GENERATION of young Americans does not believe that politics is a way to change the world.

Go to any city or town ward committee on a weekday night, and you're likely to find die-hard, committed citizens working on local issues and sharing a few laughs. But you won't find many born after the start of the Vietnam War. Our generation's rejection of politics is a problem that we need to confront.

Even if we're not politicos, though, this is a generation of idealistic problem solvers. You'll find us serving our communities - from creating housing to reimagining after-school education. We are engaging in community service at record rates, with over 70 percent of college students participating.

Over the past 15 years, Boston has become America's hub of social entrepreneurship. Start-ups like City Year, Citizen Schools, Lead Boston, and United Leaders give young leaders ways to put idealism into action - channeling the can-do spirit of a new generation into citizen service.

Boston is fortunate to have political leaders who support community service. It was a visit to Boston over a decade ago that introduced then-candidate Bill Clinton to the City Year Corps' infectious idealism and inspired AmeriCorps. Governor Romney, Senator Kennedy, and Boston Mayor Menino were early supporters of national service, and Kerry has an ambitious plan to expand national service nationwide.

Once again our work is cut out for us. The same young idealists who serve in our communities do not see politics as a way to make a difference. Whether because of the Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-contra, and similar public scandals, the influence of money and media in political campaigns, or the rise of 24-hour media outlets that provide seemingly endless coverage of picadillos and personal failings of political figures, there is no getting around the fact that where half of young people in 1972 voted in the presidential election, fewer than a third of young voters went to the polls in 2000.

We need to start right here in Boston to reverse this alarming trend. We need to harness the idealism that's at the core of our generation's service ethic as a force for progress in politics. Luckily, we have an incredibly potent tool at our disposal: the Internet.

New technologies demonstrate the potential to unite and engage young citizens across the country and bring them into the political process. Town hall meetings are wired with audience response technology that instantly clarifies priorities and crystallizes consensus. Tech-savvy organizers have been harnessing the power of online communities - like MoveOn, MeetUp, and Friendster - to organize for candidates and causes.

Each day, campaigns across the country are creating new ways to engage volunteers and voters through a combination of classical campaign tactics and online organizing tools. Internet fund-raising is shattering campaign records and redefining political finance.

Weblogs give would-be pundits a simple way to publish to a global audience for essentially no cost. The online conversation about politics is making our real-space conversation about politics far more vibrant.

The goal is to make the Bostonian tradition of active citizenship both relevant and fun for a new generation. We're learning that we can have fun and make a difference by bringing politics and technologies into our daily lives - with concerts, bake sales, house parties, and a few clicks of the mouse.

With the 2004 presidential election in full swing, it is time to engage young people across the nation by appealing to the biggest idea Boston's ever produced: America. As we show this generation that idealism and innovation have the power to change the world, let the belief of Justice Louis Brandeis be our guide; the most important office in the United States is citizen. And as the torch of leadership passes to our generation, we're ready to run with it.

It is up to us. Decisions are made by those who show up, and today, by those who plug in. We have the tools and the talent to lead the charge to reengage our generation. Let us remember how one of Boston's favorite sons and the founder of the Peace Corps, President John F. Kennedy, defined citizenship: ``The educated citizen has an obligation to serve the public. He may be a precinct worker or a president - a candidate or a campaign worker, a winner or a loser. But he must be a participant and not a spectator.''

Larry Harris is co-founder and president of United Leaders. John Palfrey is executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. 

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