Eric H. Holder, Jr.

Deputy Attorney General

Robert F. Kennedy Fellows

The George Washington University

Washington, DC

July 15, 1999

Good Morning. Thank you for inviting me to address today's RFK Youth Leadership Conference. It is truly an honor and a privilege to do so. I am happy to be among friends and familiar faces -- it's good that Brenda Nixon can be with us, and it's also nice to see Debbie Jarvis, Terri Freeman, Vincent Schiraldi, and Lynn Delaney who has done such a wonderful job as Executive Director of the RFK Memorial. I thank each of you and everyone else here for all the work you have done for America's youth. I am pleased to talk with you this morning about what young people can do to take action and provide solutions for the challenges of the 21st century.

Having always admired and been inspired by Robert Kennedy and the ideals for which he gave his life, I am very proud of my involvement with the Memorial. Five years ago, when I was the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, the Memorial did not yet have a D.C. Fellows program, but it did have a Washington Juvenile Justice Project in which I participated. That project worked with a range of folks, including city and federal officials, judges, child advocates, community activists, business officials, and attorneys in my office to revise and rethink how the District treated non-violent juvenile offenders. One of the primary findings of the project's study was that community programs in the District were woefully understaffed. Thankfully, the Memorial established the Fellows program--which had previously existed solely in San Francisco and Los Angeles--right here in D.C. to have young people support and expand the District's community programs. And what a job you have done.

In just two years, you have made your presence felt, and D.C. is a better place because of your dedicated work. I thank you for that. Members of the Covenant House Youth Congress designed the "Peer to Peer Mentoring Program" to help 7th graders at Kramer Middle School through homework assistance, a book club, and other educational and recreational activities. Last spring, D.C. Fellows helped implement entrepreneurship training at Dunbar High School and at the Associates for Renewal in Education. Knowing that urban youth have extraordinary potential for business success but too often lack the tools to create their own wealth, you helped teach students how to start and operate their own businesses. And by helping host the "All About Youth" workshops and speak-out at Howard University, you worked to improve young people's perceptions of law enforcement, discussed the influence of music on adolescent's beliefs and values, and raised awareness about issues of teen sexuality.

The Fellows continue to do wonderful things on the West Coast, too. In San Francisco, an RFK Fellow started a "Youth in Recovery Group" that works with participants of the Youth Treatment Education Court to give advice and support to young people involved in drugs as an alternative to incarceration. Another Fellow in San Francisco helped elementary and middle school students develop self-esteem and team building skills, as well as physical and mental strength, by designing and teaching an African-Brazilian martial art class. RFK Fellows serving at a grassroots violence prevention organization in East Los Angeles helped reduce gang activity by patrolling community streets after school to ensure that youngsters returned home safely. And the Los Angeles Program Director founded "Mujeres en Progreso" (Women in Progress), a support group for young widowed mothers and other female victims of gang violence. These are just a few examples of the fantastic work the RFK Fellows have done.

The Corporation for National Service has also done a wonderful job of helping Americans everywhere. When he came into office, President Clinton outlined a vision for a national service program that would bring people of different backgrounds together to serve and improve their country. His vision became AmeriCorps, and its members have done terrific work all over the nation. In only four years, over 100,000 young people have joined and served nearly 33 million people in more than 4,000 communities. By teaching, tutoring, and mentoring more than 2 and a half million children, AmeriCorps members have helped students succeed in and out of school. They have worked with police and community organizations to make neighborhoods safer, through over 40,000 safety patrols and by serving more than 560,000 at-risk youth in after-school programs. AmeriCorps members have also mobilized nearly 2 million volunteers, helped over 200,000 senior citizens live independently, built or rehabilitated more than 25,000 homes, given food and other necessities to almost 2 and a half million homeless individuals, provided job or career counseling to 337,000 people, immunized 419,000 others, and improved the environment by planting 52 and a half million new trees and removing almost 70,000 tons of trash from our streets. What an incredible record! But as impressive as they are, these examples and statistics can only show so much. Each of you who have done this work know, and will long remember, the faces behind the figures, the lives lifted, the communities assisted, and the countless citizens forever committed to serving their country. I am very proud to support AmeriCorps and am happy that the RFK Fellows have the opportunity to be a part of this fantastic initiative. Congratulations on all of your success -- it is an inspiration.

As your accomplishments demonstrate, you are caring and committed public servants to whom we all owe our thanks and much appreciation. America today is strong and good, in part because of such service. Indeed, we have much for which to be thankful. Our economy is the strongest ever. Crime rates have declined in virtually every category for the past seven years, and the welfare rolls have gone down, too. But America desperately needs your continued help, because problems persist and the picture as the President's last week demostrated, is not quite so great for everyone.

Despite all the progress we have made, there are still 15 million young Americans in need. We are losing too many of them to crime, drugs, and inadequate education. They are at risk of growing up untaught, unskilled, and unmotivated, lacking the confidence needed to reach their fullest potential. Too many live without hope and fear that, for them, the American Dream may be forever deferred.

What can be done? Some say government is the problem, that it should back off and let folks fend for themselves. Without bureaucratic regulations, they contend, the market will cure all ills. Others say government alone is the solution. Neither, of course, is right. There isn't always a program or policy to fix every problem and lift every life. But government funded programs such as AmeriCorps have made, and can make a tremendous difference. Ultimately, however, caring individuals like yourselves -- the backbone of these efforts -- embody the solutions to many of our greatest challenges. Through dedicated hard work and human contact, the difficulties faced by too many young people can be overcome person by person -- hand in hand, face to face, heart to heart.

When I talk to young people throughout the country, I am often struck by how much they have in common, despite the disparate circumstances of their upbringings. They have the same desires, share the same concerns, and need the same nurturing. All young people, not just those at-risk, must be loved and given attention. All must feel valued and know that they count for something in this world. Children need a sense of right and wrong, a sense of pride, and respect for others. They must learn that they are ultimately responsible for the consequences of their actions. Every child should have a positive role model to help guide them and keep them on the right path. Young people need tutors and mentors. They need goals to strive for and stronger support systems to give them a fair shake at reaching those goals. And, perhaps most importantly, all of them need hope -- and all of you are that hope. You must reach out and give meaning to each other's lives. Offer your hands and open your hearts to those who need your help. Each and every one of you must be his brother's and sister's keepers.

There is a battle in this country today for the souls of our young people. And make no mistake: In this struggle, all of America's hope lies with people like you -- the foot-soldiers who can and will prevail. In the end, your generation must play its part in deciding how best to change America and help her citizens in need help themselves. And it surely won't be easy. Some, in fact, doubt that you're up to the task. I don't need to tell you that there are some misconceptions out there about your generation -- that "Generation X" is somehow lazy, spoiled, and apathetic. Far too often, older folks only focus negative attention on today's youth and ignore all of the positive contributions young people make to communities everywhere, everyday. I wish they could be here this morning to meet you. I know, from seeing energetic and committed young people like yourselves, how untrue these stereotypes are.

The struggle will be difficult. It must be waged day by day, block by block, child by child. But I can think of no better way to succeed than with young people helping other young people to aspire and achieve. For as Robert Kennedy put it: "This world demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease." Clearly, each of you has chosen this path and exemplifies these attributes. I know that in your work, you may sometimes get discouraged and even question from time to time whether what you are doing makes much of a difference at all. You may wonder if simply helping one person can really improve the world. Yet as Robert Kennedy reminds us:

"Let none believe that there is nothing one man or woman can do against the enormous array of the world's ills -- against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence ... Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation ... Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

As RFK Fellows and AmeriCorps members, all of you are standing up for cherished ideals, improving the lot of others, and striking out against injustice. Each of you sends forth ripples of hope from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington which, together, will create the solutions of the 21st century.

I am happy that this conference will give you the opportunity to attend workshops, learn tangible skills, and develop new ideas to help yourselves and your communities. I look forward to seeing that beautiful mural, the "Wall of Diversity," that you will paint. And I want to say how impressed I am with all the work you are doing and the progress you have made. You should all be very proud of yourselves -- I certainly am proud of you. Please don't ever forget this truth: You are making America what it can and should be. On behalf of the American Nation, I thank you.