Saturday Sep 21

EXCERPT FROM Race and Social Change: A Quest, A Study, A Call to Action: The National Call to Action: Voluntary National Service as a Civic Rite of Passage

In making the case for national service, I do not intend to diminish or dismiss the myriad other pathways that caring and compassionate individuals choose in their own quests to bring about greater racial equity and healing. That being said, I believe that National Service is an idea with a unique ability to have a impact on a large scale. As I will argue, it represents a logical next step for a whole system that has evolved to the level of complexity that we find ourselves immersed in in the real world today.

As a way into understanding the full transformational potential of the idea of national service, I invite you to reflect on the following question: What are your thoughts about high school? Perhaps the question evokes memories of good friends and joy-filled years of success and popularity. Perhaps it evokes memories of academic frustrations, social awkwardness, and adolescent angst. Perhaps you dropped out; perhaps high school is your current reality. Whatever your thoughts may be, the key point is that all of us have thoughts about high school; it’s an essentially universal life experience, and there is near-unanimous agreement that if you don’t complete high school—or some equivalent academic experience—you have missed a crucial rite of passage on the journey to adulthood and are almost definitely not going to be fully prepared to compete and thrive in the modern economy.

This was not always the case. Up through the 19th century, high schools were rare, and most American’s ended their formal education after seventh grade, when they began working full time in the agrarian economy. At the dawn of the 20th century, however, two trends inspired a movement to dramatically expand high school education. The first was the transition to the industrial economy and the related demand for a more educated and skilled workforce. The second was a growing unease with the vast social inequalities of the age; this was a moment when a small number of captains of industry had accumulated vast wealth while the majority of Americans were barely getting by. The high school movement sought to promote both economic growth and greater economic equality.

In his book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Harvard sociologist Robert D. Putnam notes that the percentage of young people graduating from high school rose dramatically over the course of the 20th century, from six percent at the beginning of the century to 80 percent by 1970 (p. 183). He notes that according to several leading economic analysts of this movement, it was “the seminal force behind both economic growth and socioeconomic equality in America during the twentieth century” (p. 160).

Here, in the early years of the 21st century, we confront a surprisingly similar set of challenges, including a new vast era of vast economic inequality, and a growing recognition that America’s economic competitiveness in the information economy depends upon having an even more highly educated workforce. We’re also confronting an era of bitter divisiveness that is corrosive to our sense of shared national purpose and that threatens to destroy the fabric of our civic connectedness.

Big challenges demand big solutions. Making service a universal civic rite of passage—as much an integral part of the journey to adulthood as high school is today— can be that big solution. It is a single policy initiative with the potential to renew our democracy, dismantle the legacy of generations of systemic injustice and discrimination, promote racial reconciliation, develop personal responsibility and an ethic of service, and usher every young America across the threshold of adulthood with a clear sense of one’s duties and responsibilities as a American citizen.

The intellectual argument for national service was first laid out by William James in a 1910 essay entitled The Moral Equivalent of War. James was a pacifist who believed that in the modern era, war had become so destructive, expensive, and counterproductive that it was clearly something to be avoided at all costs. Yet he recognized that there were elements of the military experience that had value and could be harnesses for peaceful purposes. James believed that “[t]he martial type of character can be bred without war. Strenuous honor and disinterestedness abound everywhere.” He argued that the moral equivalent of war would involve engaging young people in a year of more of service focused on civilian challenges; his examples included activities like road-building, tunnel-making, framing skyscrapers and more. Such an experience would serve young people in that they would “get the childishness knocked out of them, and…come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. “ Writing back in 1910, he stated, “Individuals, daily more numerous, now feel this civic passion. It is only a question of blowing on the spark until the whole population gets incandescent” (James 2016).

Today, this is an idea that has already become a reality. Military service remains an option for young men and women eager to serve their country, of course. Over the last several decade, that uniquely courageous path of service has been complemented by civilian service options like the Peace Corps (an international service program founded in 1961) and VISTA (“Volunteers in Service to America”—a domestic anti-poverty program founded in 1965). More recently, AmeriCorps was founded in 1993 to engage young adults in a wide variety of civilian service experiences, including disaster preparedness and relief, promoting economic opportunity, environmental stewardship, and education. It currently engages approximately 80,000 members a year, and will soon graduate its one millionth alumnus.

City Year is a proud member of AmeriCorps, and in my time there I had the opportunity to see the impact national service has on the communities served and on the young people who provide that service. The organization is just one of a vast constellation of organizations that are part of AmeriCorps.

If we were to harness the talent, energy, and idealism of vast numbers of young adults and deploy all that human capital strategically to address this kind of critical civic challenge, then we could transform instead of reinforce today’s structural inequalities. Universal national service has the potential to be to the 21st century what universal high school was to the 20th: a newly universal civic rite of passage, a great civic equalizer, an engine of positive social change, and a driver of economic growth that renews our democracy at the same moment it enhances our competitiveness on the global scene.

In making this call to expand national service, I add my voice to a robust movement that has been working to make this vision a reality for decades through work at both the grass roots and the grass tops. Currently, the issue is being championed most vocally by an organization called The Service Year Alliance. Their vision—which I endorse completely—is as follows:

Service Year Alliance is working to make a year of paid, full-time service — a service year — a common expectation and opportunity for all young Americans. A service year before, during, or after college — or as a way to get back on track — gives young people the chance to develop their skills, make an impact on the lives of others, and become the active citizens and leaders our nation needs. Expanding service years has the power to revitalize cities, uplift and educate children at risk, and
empower communities struggling with poverty. It can unite the most diverse nation in history, binding people of different backgrounds through common cause. Service Year Alliance is asking nonprofits, higher education institutions, cities and states, companies and foundations, policymakers of both parties, and people of all ages to join the movement. (Service Year Alliance, 2016)

To be clear, the vision here is that this year of service would be voluntary, not mandatory. While no one would be compelled against their will to serve, the vision is that completing a service year would be so widespread, so culturally encouraged, and so socially expected as a responsibility for every American citizen that it would be nearly universal.

In the U.S., our national service efforts are managed by a federal organization called the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). CNCS oversees AmeriCorps, which is essentially a funding stream of federal dollars. Local nonprofits in every state apply for access to those funds in a competitive process in which the programs with the strongest evidence of impact are awarded three-year grants. Programs must re-apply every three years, and if they can’t demonstrate

impact their funding may be cut and redirected to another more impactful program. It’s a structure that ensures that the work on the front lines is being managed by local community organizations, and there is a structure of accountability to ensure that these funds flow to only the most effective programs. A small sample of organizations that engage AmeriCorps members includes YouthBuild, Teach for America, Boys and Girls Club, New York City Coalition Against Hunger, Jumpstart, Communities in Schools, Girls Scouts of the USA, Boy Scouts of the USA, and many, many more.

A recent study found that every dollar invested in national service through AmeriCorps produces nearly four dollars in benefits (Belfield, 2013). This is a sound and wise investment of federal dollars.

Furthermore, national service delivers a dual benefit. The students being served are not the only ones whose lives are improved; the young adults delivering the service also benefit immensely from the experience. According to a rigorous evaluation, when compared with peers who did not serve, young adults who completed a City Year were significantly more likely to vote, more likely to volunteer, more likely to manage volunteers, and reported being more comfortable working with diverse peers. A rigorous study of AmeriCorps alumni found that eight years after completing a service year, AmeriCorps alumni were more engaged in their community than peers who hadn’t served, and they reported feeling more purpose and fulfillment in life years after graduating. Clearly, national service has the potential to simultaneously address pressing public challenges while developing a new generation of engaged, informed, effective, responsible civic leaders.

It’s important to note that vast numbers of young people are already eager to serve. For the last few years, America has allocated enough money to support roughly 80,000 participants in AmeriCorps per year. In the years 2013-2014, however, more than 500,000 young people each year applied to the program, meaning that nearly one million young people who were ready to dedicate a year of their lives to full-time service to the nation were denied the opportunity. That’s a whole lot of potential to do good on a national scale that is being left untapped. At its best, national service has the potential to guide a generation of citizens through a deeply personal inner journey of awakening through the very process of engaging them to work together across lines of difference to confront our nation’s most pressing public problems.

Max Klau is the Chief Program Officer at the New Politics Leadership Academy and a former vice president of leadership development at City Year. Race and Social Change is available at from the publisher.

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