Every American Should Serve For One Year
“America needs to get back to its roots. Throughout history, we have empowered our citizens to create change and break down barriers to overcome our greatest challenges. A year of national service has the power to do this once more, binding our country together in common purpose and reigniting citizenship in our next generation of leaders.”
This article was originally published in its entirety in TIME Magazine.
America needs a restart. Our civic landscape today is quite disturbing. Trust in one another and in key institutions are at historic lows. And our civic connectedness — volunteering, voting, joining voluntary and civic associations — are significantly down from previous years.
This is not the America we can be. We are a country defined by ideals now in need of rescue.
America needs a big idea that plays to its strength. It should look to national service.
We should get to the business of providing at least one million opportunities each year for young Americans to spend a service year with peers who are different from them — by race, ethnicity, income, politics, and religious belief. Serving together to solve public problems will build attachment to community and country, understanding among people who might otherwise be skeptical of one another, and a new generation of leaders who can get things done. I saw these effects for 34 years in the U.S. Army. We need them in civilian life.
Building on AmeriCorps, YouthBuild, Peace Corps, and other programs, Service Year Alliance analysis shows we could unleash the energy of our young people to tutor and mentor students in low-performing schools; support the elderly so they age with dignity; help communities respond to disasters; assist veterans reintegrating into their hometowns; and perform a thousand different tasks of value to our country.
National service has already proven its value.
In coal country in Kentucky, fifty Volunteers in Service to America helped put unemployed coal miners back to work in computer coding and telework jobs and connected more than 25,000 unemployed workers to job training.
In Detroit, 150 national service members in an Urban Safety Corps are reducing crime and saving taxpayer dollars by increasing public safety by engaging residents in boarding up vacant homes, expanding neighborhood watch groups, ensuring students get to school safely, and conducting home safety audits to protect residents from violence.
Sargent Shriver wanted to run the Peace Corps through colleges, but the infrastructure did not exist when he founded the agency in 1961. It does now. Many colleges, including William & Mary, Tufts, Miami-Dade College, Tulane, and Averett, are creating service year opportunities for their students at home and abroad, and embedding a service year in their curriculum and admissions processes.
Cities, states, and higher education institutions across the country could replicate these examples to take national service to scale.
Congress can do three things to help. First, it should honor its commitment to provide 250,000 national service opportunities each year through the Serve America Act. Second, it could amend the National Defense Reauthorization Act to have civilian service meet the needs of military families and veterans, and to enable veterans to perform civilian service to help transition back to civilian life. And third, Congress should pass the 21st Century Civilian Conservation Service Corps, which was introduced in the House and Senate last week, to engage young Americans and veterans in restoring national parks and other public lands.
Through a serious commitment to bridging our differences and restoring our confidence in solving big challenges together, America can reignite the energy needed to make our country what it can be.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal is the Chairman of Service Year Alliance. Learn more at ServiceYear.org.