Earlier today I made it to the UNC campus for the kick-off of the Project Opportunity campus tour by John Edwards.
John is an honorary chair of the board of the Center For Promise and Opportunity, an organization devoted to recruiting college population in a fight towards elimination of poverty. The Center is working together with the UNC Center on Poverty, Law and Opportunity of which Edwards is the Director.
This tour is designed to raise awareness about poverty among the college students and to start a movement that can effect real change. One of the projects of the Center is a pilot program based on Edwards' campaign idea: providing for one year of college tutition for students who are willing to work 10 hours per week. They have picked Green County in Eastern NC, a relatively poor county, to try this program.
It's been a while since the election so I have forgotten the rock-star effect Edwards has on the crowds when he enters the room. I have overheard an estimate of about 1000 people (800 in the main hall, another 200 in the overflow room next door) being present - mostly students. And all 1000 cheered as loudly as if it was a January in Iowa.
The speech was a shorter version of his excellent post-Katrina speech with an important element added: a brief history of student activism and the profound societal changes it effected in the 1960s and 1980s. This was to undescore that change is possible, that bigwigs in DC are forced to listen if enough people scream loud enough. John urged the students to advocate to their friends and families, to write to their representatives (and college administrators) and not to be defeatist about the real possibility that change is possible - and neccessary because it is the right (and moral) thing to do.
At the press conference afterwards, the questions were exactly as expected: first, how is Elizabeth (she's doing fine), second, is he running for President (too early to decide yet) - at least that's what the TV guys (Channel 11) asked. The Edwards' are currently renting an appartment in Chapel Hill while waiting for their Carrboro house to be finished.
The complete elimination of poverty in the USA, which is possible, is Edwards' main issue - stuff he spends most of his time and effort on. Co-chairing the Council Task Force on Russian-American Relations (he just came back from Moscow) is second on his list of priorities. The third will be his new work with the Fortress group, through which he is hoping to learn about programs and possibilities here and abroad that can be used to alleviate poverty.
Of course, raising minimum wage and helping kids with college are just first (and relatively cheap and easy) things to do. The problem of poverty, he said, is a complex problem that has intertwined financial and social components. It's not just money, but also the the feeling of hopelessness of young men in the inner city who expect to either get killed or go to jail. It will take some hard work to change this psychological perception - but it is possible. It's not just money, but also the feeling of hopelessness by the young women who therefore do the one productive thing they can: have babies. There are deep structural problems in the society as a whole that result in the ongoing cycle of poverty and the forces against change are powerful. But the system has to be changed because if not, the country as a whole will suffer - rich and poor alike - in the long run.
You can read more on the One America Committee website and its blog.
After the press conference I had several minutes of one-on-one with John, something that could not have happened even a year ago - I would have had to wait in line to shake his hand (and he shook something like 1000 hands today - no campaign managers were there to whisk him away to the next campaign stop). Heck, a year ago I would not have even been allowed into the press conference. Today, being a blogger opens all doors. You have to keep your bloggers happy!