Former senator and vice presidential candidate John Edwards returned to the public eye last week by kicking off a national college campaign to encourage students to fight poverty by volunteering in their communities.
In the last two weeks, Edwards has spoken at 10 colleges as part of his “Opportunity Rocks” tour, which he hopes will inspire students to work toward eradicating poverty in the United States.
Edwards said in an interview with U-WIRE that college students demonstrated their political clout during his youth as leaders in pushing for new civil rights legislation and an end to the U.S. military presence in Vietnam.
“What we’re doing is trying to build a grassroots movement to end poverty in America,” he said. “This is focused not just on hurricane victims and not just a slice of the issue, but the big, important issue of ending poverty.”
The number of Americans living in poverty rose from 35.9 million in 2003 to 37 million in 2004 – 12.7 percent of all Americans – according to Census figures.
“I think the country is hungry for something big and important that they can be inspired about,” Edwards said. “In the aftermath of Katrina, this window of opportunity is going to close, and it will close unless students do something about it, unless those with the power to create a grassroots movement engage.”
Edwards has been a noted supporter of federal measures to combat poverty since he made his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination last year.
“When the election was over, this is where I decided I wanted to spend most of my time,” he said.
Giving an example of student interest in his tour, Edwards said his appearance at Yale University drew enough students to pack an auditorium, two overflow rooms and surrounding hallways.
“I think it’s clear that students want to do something about this,” he said. “We can raise this issue and have it seared into the American conscience.”
Opportunity Rocks is a month-old outreach program of the Center for Promise and Opportunity, an organization that Edwards helped to start this spring. He is now the group’s honorary chairman.
Since spring, dedicated Edwards supporters have organized Opportunity Rocks student groups on 10 college campuses. Edwards said his group has largely depended on those students to work out many administrative details of his recent appearances at their schools and organize local community service efforts.
Opportunity Rocks members are asked to volunteer in their communities for 20 hours each semester.
“Our students here have been working hard to start a movement in Missouri,” Megan Block, founder of the Opportunity Rocks chapter at the University of Missouri at Columbia, wrote in an email. “With our enthusiasm and dedication, I am confident that it will happen.”
The Center for Promise and Opportunity is pushing several other initiatives, including a proposal to offer taxpayer-funded housing vouchers to Gulf Coast residents displaced during this year’s hurricane season.
The group is also running a donor-funded experiment in one North Carolina county that will cover the first year of college for academically qualified high school students who commit to participating in community service.
Edwards said that although Congress has turned down the possibility of a federal minimum wage increase this year, his group is working through state legislatures to raise minimum wages in Michigan, Ohio and Arizona.
While Edwards is still undecided about whether to make a second run for the presidency in the 2008 election, he hopes that his proposals will be a uniting force for his party.
“I think the country as a whole – and hopefully Democrats – are going to be about big causes over the next several years, and in my view there’s no greater moral cause to rally around in America than ending poverty,” he said.