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Young generation volunteering, Rotary speaker says
UA ethics lecturer concerned about a lack of leadership among teens, younger adults

By Bayne Hughes 340-2432

How do you define "obligation"?

Different generations define it in different ways, and today's generation sees its obligation as volunteering to help with existing problems, a professor told the Rotary Club of Decatur on Monday.

Stephen Foster Black, director and senior lecturer for The University of Alabama's Initiative for Ethics and Social Responsibility, said more young people between ages 15 and 25 are volunteering now than in previous generations.

In fact, Black said, this generation reversed a 30-year trend of dwindling volunteerism.

Not juicing resumes

"We thought kids were just trying to juice their resumes, but that's not right. They're committed to making a difference," said Black, introduced by Decatur Daily Publisher Barrett C. Shelton Jr.

Black said this spirit of volunteerism springs from what the younger generation considers a charitable obligation. But the problem, he said, is today's generation feels no obligation toward correcting injustice or showing basic leadership as the World War II generation once did.

"Volunteering helps in dealing with an existing problem, but it doesn't solve or correct the problem," Black said.

Black said the younger generation's philosophy comes as the nation continues its move to the suburbs.

Living in suburbia puts people into vacuums with people like themselves. He said this makes it hard for them to have compassion for those who are different.

"We have the richest country in the history of the planet, and yet most students don't know that there are 9 million children without health insurance," Black said.

Unable to debate

Black said the media also skews perspectives because today's generation seeks out conservative or liberal media that broadcasts the same views they hold, leaving them unable to debate because they often don't understand both sides of the issue.

He said churches are following their congregations to the suburbs and, other than Jews and Catholics, are "denominationally mobile," meaning they're readily willing to switch denominations.

Black said churches are also focusing more on volunteerism than on correcting the structure and consequences of injustice. He said the movements for the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage and civil rights came out of faith-based organizations. He said faith-based groups shouldn't shy away from "being a loud, powerful voice" in politics.

"More and more, they're concerned with feeling great and making it much more warm and fuzzy so that less is required of us," he said.

Black, the grandson for late Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, ran unsuccessfully for state treasurer in 2002.

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