DURHAM, NC - New York Times columnist Bob Herbert called for ordinary citizens to shape the America they want to see in a talk at Griffith Film Theater Wednesday.
In his speech, titled "A Call to Civic Engagement," Herbert reflected on the incompetencies of past private and public leadership and urged individuals to act on their own initiative. He addressed an audience of more than 100 members of the campus and local communities.
Despite the historic election of President Barack Obama last November on a mandate for "change," Herbert argued that all Americans have an individual obligation to be involved in changing the country.
"I want to stress today that electing a president is not enough," he said. "You have to decide what kind of country you want, and how you individually-and in concert with others-can create that society."
Herbert's speech was a mix of somber reflection and inspirational calls for action as he talked about the human consequences of policy decisions.
"Whether [decision makers] realize it or not, they were given a sacred responsibility," he said. "Think about the human consequences. These are not abstract issues to be talked about during political campaigns and then forgotten about."
As an example, Herbert highlighted Hurricane Katrina as the most illustrative case of unnecessary suffering as a result of poor leadership.
"It was the city that was sacrificed on the altar of incompetence," he said.
Throughout his life, Herbert has experienced first hand the human consequences of political, economic and infrastructural policy. As a young man he was stationed in Korea during the Vietnam War. He also had a range of real world experiences as a newspaper reporter and later as a national correspondent for NBC.
Herbert told the audience the story of his own close friends who died during the Vietnam War. He noted the psychological toll that war has on soldiers. He also discussed the young men and women soldiers he has met while reporting, who are serving their third or fourth tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"For the first time in history our combat troops are taking daily doses of antidepressants due to the prolonged length of their tours," he said.
Herbert's speech dealt with a broad range of topics, and the handling of the economic crisis was another subject of his criticism.
Although Herbert discussed the urgency of the current crisis in America, he also emphasized the confidence he has in the American people to take the necessary steps to intervene in their own fate.
"It is not too late.... We have been through much worse. This is not the Depression or World War II. This is not the Jim Crow era," he said. "I don't have a sense as I travel the country that the American people are apathetic. They are hungry for leadership."
During the question and answer session, Herbert said he believes that anyone has the ability to become a leader.
"It is a mistake to think you need some kind of extraordinary quality," he said. "It's taking initiative and following through, so if you are in a community and you decide that you are not crazy about something in your local school district and you get people together to talk about it, it's leadership."
Alma Blount, director of the Hart Leadership Program, introduced Herbert and later told The Chronicle that she found the talk to be very powerful and on point. She also stressed the importance of a leadership movement from the top down.
"We need people at the top levels who can learn to think systemically and create systemic changes," she said. "These are complex issues that will need to be solved not only through Americans volunteering-although that will definitely supplement it."