Igniting A Service Nation

January 1, 2009       John Bridgeland      

With crashing stock markets and soaring unemployment, President Franklin Roosevelt called the Congress into emergency session in March of 1933 to adopt his Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to put jobless young people to work on public lands beset by soil erosion and deforestation.

Within five weeks Roosevelt won Congressional funding, and soon thereafter 250,000 corps members were at work. The CCC would eventually engage more than three million individuals, and they would plant three billion trees on public lands, build 97,000 miles of fire roads, and create drainage systems for 84 million acres of agricultural land. Low-cost, highly leveraged, national service — people power — addressed critical problems and put willing Americans to work.

Today, we have exploding unemployment, a contracting economy, and urgent unmet needs. President-elect Barack Obama, with strong allies in Congress, can follow a similar strategy to marshal the nation’s talent and energy, and use the leveraged power of non-profits in a time of crisis.

President-elect Obama has made a call to service a key theme in his vision for America, and outlined a powerful plan that would:

  • Expand AmeriCorps to 250,000 slots and double the size of the Peace Corps;
  • Integrate service-learning into our schools and universities;
  • Provide new community service opportunities for working Americans and retirees; and,
  • Expand service initiatives that engage disadvantaged young people and advance their education.

The key elements of this plan have already been captured in legislation by Senators Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), two close friends who have come together across the aisle to make public service an American priority. In an extraordinary show of bipartisanship, their “Serve America Act” (S. 3487) was endorsed by both then-Senator Obama and Senator John McCain in the midst of their presidential campaign. Parallel efforts on service are underway in the House of Representatives, under the leadership of Congressmen George Miller and Buck McKeon. They are mobilizing support for the GIVE Act to reauthorize and strengthen AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and Learn and Serve America.

The Obama vision and the Serve America Act have the strong support of more than 100 organizations affiliated with the ServiceNation campaign (www.servicenation.org). These organizations — which range from the 40 million-member AARP to Colin Powell’s America’s Promise Alliance for Youth and the NAACP — have a collective reach of some 100 million Americans. Enacting legislation quickly would bring our nation together around a smart service plan, and help foster bipartisan unity.

As with the CCC, legislation could be advanced within the first 100 days of an Obama presidency, perhaps by integrating it into the economic stimulus plan. There is already enormous unmet demand for national service programs. AmeriCorps receives three good applicants for every slot it can offer, and this year Teach For America expects 37,000 applications for its 5,000 positions.

As President-elect Obama envisions, the Serve America legislation will provide service opportunities for Americans from kindergarten through retirement, and harness the talents of our people to solve difficult problems, both in the United States and around the world.

A new volunteer generation fund will increase the capacity of community and faith-based institutions to mobilize volunteers, especially members of the Millennial and Baby Boomer generations, to help people in need at a time when our nonprofit infrastructure is under increased duress.

A brigade of 250,000 national service members will be engaged in full-time and part-time service (in exchange for a small living stipend and award to defray college costs) to, among other things:

  • Mentor and tutor children to ensure they do not drop out of high poverty high schools;
  • Train the impoverished in financial literacy and job-hunting skills;
  • Clean up polluted rivers and parks; and,
  • Help Americans respond to disasters of all kinds.

A Social Innovation Fund, a key element of President-elect Obama’s vision, would be established to tap the creativity of social entrepreneurs and incubate the next generation of civic and service strategy breakthroughs. And a civic health index, measuring our civic engagement at the national, state and community level (just as we measure the strength and weakness of our economy), will bring new accountability and help make our nation’s civic vitality a high priority.

Finally, the expansion of Volunteers for Prosperity will help deliver on President Kennedy’s goal of sending 100,000 volunteers around the world to help less developed nations. They would help tackle HIV/AIDs and malaria, provide clean water to the poor, start new businesses, and create a true alliance of prosperity.

Inspiring Americans to serve each other and their communities, and investing in the infrastructure needed to accommodate new volunteers, will mobilize the nonprofit sector to play a key role in helping build a stronger future.

But nonprofit leaders will have to step forward and engage the full power of their networks to help President-elect Obama, and leaders on the Hill, pass the legislation needed to bring about this new era of service and shared sacrifice in our nation.

President-elect Obama wants to build a new America — an America in which every individual has a place in shaping the American story. Building on the service legacies of nearly every president since Franklin Roosevelt, in a time of economic and civic crisis for the country, there could be no better expression of who were are as a people than to call on every American to do their part, and ignite a nation of service. NPT

John Bridgeland is CEO of Civic Enterprises. Michael Brown is CEO of City Year. Michelle Nunn is CEO of the Points of Light Institute. Alan Khazei is CEO of Be the Change, Inc. The four authors are the lead organizers of the nonpartisan ServiceNation campaign (www.servicenation.org) to promote increased community and nation service opportunities, solve problems with proven service strategies, and elevate service as a core ideal in our democracy.