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UC Berkeley Web Feature

John Edwards John Edwards, 2004 vice presidential candidate, visited Berkeley as part of a 10-campus college tour to promote a new public-service group for young people.
(Bonnie Azab Powell / NewsCenter photos)

Poverty is this generation's civil-rights movement, says ex-Senator John Edwards

John Edwards on video  Opportunity Rocks: Webcast of John Edwards' forum on poverty

– Hurricane Katrina ripped aside the mask of equal opportunity in America and exposed poverty's face as primarily black and deeply disillusioned. Now that almost two months have passed, many have again chosen to avert their eyes. But last night at UC Berkeley, more than 1,500 or so students and others lined up from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Student Union all the way to Sather Gate for the chance to hear a former senator and vice presidential candidate talk about poverty.

"Poverty is the great moral issue of our century," John Edwards told the audience crammed into every square inch of Pauley Ballroom. "Young people on college campuses have sparked movements in the past," he said, invoking Berkeley's Free Speech Movement and other sea changes in civil rights, the Vietnam War, and apartheid brought about by college students. "You can do it again," he challenged them. "People living in poverty need you. And another thing: America needs you."

Edwards was visiting campus as part of a 10-stop college tour to promote Opportunity Rocks, a nascent, student-led effort to motivate young people to fight poverty at the grassroots level through community service and political action. (Berkeley's Opportunity Rocks chapter is headed by student Andy Solari, also president of the Interfraternity Council.) No longer representing North Carolina in the U.S. Senate, Edwards directs the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and chairs the Center for Promise and Opportunity, a nonprofit organization dedicated to studying and alleviating poverty.

Every chair in Pauley Ballroom was filled; latecomers stood or sat in the aisles.

Edwards is a natural speaker, and his Kennedyesque call for public service appeared to strike a resounding chord with this Berkeley audience. He began his discussion of poverty in America by focusing on those residents of New Orleans who had not fled Hurricane Katrina. "Here's why they didn't leave: because they couldn't," he said, enumerating how they lacked things many in his audience might take for granted, like a car, credit card, and bank account.

What poor residents needed, he emphasized, was not just charity, but opportunity — for example, the opportunity to rebuild their city themselves. "The last thing we ought to be doing [in New Orleans] is giving big contracts to multinational corporations," he said. It was the first of several statements to elicit a standing ovation. (Another was a shout-out to U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Lee of Oakland, who is pushing for legislation to address poverty.)

Through Opportunity Rocks, Edwards is asking students to commit to doing 20 hours of community service per semester. Its website promises that students who register will be able to find guidance for what kinds of service are needed, as well as track their progress in online forums and blogs.

Some students commented afterward that Edwards' speech was a bit skimpy on the details of this service. Alice, a graduate student in political science said, "I believe in what he was talking about, but he didn't give us a lot of concrete action that we on the ground can take. I was hoping for some new insights." (She asked that her last name be withheld because her country of origin frowns on its students making political statements abroad.)

Edwards provided more specifics, however, on how he and the Center for Promise and Opportunity hope to address poverty on a national level. He would like to end the "national disgrace of our minimum wage" with a substantial increase. He proposes to give housing vouchers to poor families that they could use to live anywhere, not just in Section 8 housing, in neighborhoods with good schools if they choose. If Hurricane Katrina's devastating effect on New Orleans has taught us one thing, he said, it's that "it is not a good thing to cluster poor people together."

He would also like to issue "work bonds," through which the government would match any savings that low-income families manage to accrue, helping them save to buy homes and send their children to college.

Throughout his speech, Edwards emphasized that America does not have to be a land of haves and have-nots — that "we can do something about that."

He offered his own life as proof. "Some of you might remember that I'm the son of a mill worker — that is, unless you've been asleep for the past few years," he said with a wink and to much laughter. For those few who had been snoozing, he offered a quick recap of his path from a working-class childhood to becoming a successful trial lawyer, state senator, and "what some would consider a serious candidate for the presidential nomination." (Although "that 'some' was mostly me," he confessed self-mockingly.)

Tackling the conservative stance that all such success can be achieved only by pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps, Edwards said emphatically, "I did not get here by myself; I could never have gotten here by myself." He had help from his parents, from "great, heroic public school teachers," and "a great state university system," which helped him get several degrees that he never could have afforded at a private college, he said.

After the talk, students crowded around Edwards with digital cameras. (From the maroon shirt in the center, look in the direction of 11 o'clock.)

Third-year student Irene Mungo (white shirt, smiling) was one of those who scored a photo.

Edwards told the assembled students that it was not enough to ask what they can do for the 37 million Americans who live in poverty in their country; they should ask what they can do for the world, too.

"There's an enormous void in America of moral leadership here and abroad," he chided. The ongoing genocide in the Darfour region of Sudan, the billions of people who live in more abject poverty than Americans can even imagine — these too need our attention, he said, perhaps even more than "that mess in Iraq."

At the end of his speech, Edwards stepped off the stage and around the barriers erected by his campus hosts, the Cal Berkeley Democrats. He was instantly mobbed by hundreds of students wanting to shake his hand and pose for photos with their digital cameras and cell phones, which he good-naturedly did for almost as long as his 40-minute speech.

Third-year chemical biology student Irene Mungo explained why she had lingered after the speech to snap a photo: "I admire him very much — not just because he ran for president but for what he stands for, for standing up for those who can't. I'm pre-med, and I already intended to help people in my country, Kenya, but I'm definitely even more inspired now."


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