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Want to Deepen Civic Engagement & Strengthen Communities? Support National Service

By Deborah Smolover. Deborah Smolover is a Managing Partner of New Profit and Executive Director of America Forward. 

Lately, an idea close to the hearts of many social innovators is gaining traction among Democratic primary candidates: scaling national service. 

Within the past few months, Mayor Pete Buttigeig released a policy proposal to build a network of 1 million paid service opportunities by 2026; Senator Elizabeth Warren proposed a Climate Corps, and John Delaney called for mandatory national service. Although they have left the race, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Governor Jay Inslee, and Congressman Seth Moulton all offered large-scale service proposals. Today, we call on the rest of the field to join the movement to support national service.

This week marks the 25th anniversary of AmeriCorps, the largest federal national service program. AmeriCorps supports both full-time and part-time service by adults of all ages, supported by a living allowance and an education award that can be used to pay for college or pay back student loans. Although it is a federal program, most AmeriCorps positions are managed by nonprofit organizations, which have great flexibility determining who serves and what they do.

For this reason, it’s not surprising that many members of the America Forward Coalition have turned to national service as a human capital strategy to deliver their programs. Because they are innovators, these organizations sometimes face hurdles qualifying for traditional government funding streams that specify providers or interventions. In contrast, AmeriCorps, the largest national service funding program, allows organizations to set their own agendas as long as they specify measurable outcomes. 

(Photo by April Greer For The Washington Post)

For example: 

  • With support from AmeriCorps, Jumpstart deploys, recruits, and trains college students and community volunteers to work with preschool-age children in under-resourced communities and help young children develop the language, literacy, and social-emotional skills that research has shown to be critical for preparing children for success. 
  • Similarly, College Possible leverages the power of young, idealistic and dedicated recent college graduates serving as AmeriCorps members to offer advice, mentoring and support to students from low-income backgrounds as they navigate the often complex world of college preparation and persistence.
  • Youth Villages, a national leader in children’s mental and behavioral health, engages AmeriCorps members on its 1,200-acre Youth Villages Inner Harbour Campus housing students from foster care and the juvenile justice system. AmeriCorps members tutor youth, lead life skills trainings and activities, manage a community garden on campus, lead nutrition and cooking classes in the campus’s outdoor kitchen, and offer students at Youth Villages tangible and portable skills to help them find jobs after school ends.

In addition to offering a workforce to address some of the country’s biggest challenges, service programs provide those who serve with a powerful way to change their own lives. For example, while Encore.org works with 250 organizational partners to tap the talent of the 50+ population as a force for good for children and youth, it has found that serving has an equally important impact on the adults who serve. Similarly, the 250 programs that are part of YouthBuild USA provide opportunity youth with the chance to reclaim their education, gain job skills, and become leaders in their communities. It incorporates service into the program to help students see their potential and become change agents in their neighborhoods. Encore, YouthBuild, and many other America Forward organizations understand that doing for others can uniquely change a person’s perception of their own worth and possibilities. That sense of purpose drives other outcomes across the spectrum of a lifetime — from education and career success to mental and physical health. 

One additional benefit of service is of particular value in these turbulent political times: the experience of serving develops public-spirited leaders. It’s no surprise that some of today’s innovative nonprofits were started by alums of national service programs who, through their own service, saw community challenges and thought of unique new solutions to address them. Teach For America and City Year are the most prolific, as the founders of KIPP, Braven, New Politics, and dozens of other social entrepreneurs got their start in these AmeriCorps programs. 

Candidates are likely taking note that national service is popular across demographic groups. Seventy-five percent of all Americans support national service as a strategy to address unmet needs in our communities, and one in four young Americans today say they would serve or participate in a national service program if given the opportunity. Imagine the power of people coming together across all ages and backgrounds in common purpose.

America Forward is proud to be a founding member of the Serve America Together Campaign, organized by America Forward Coalition member Service Year Alliance, to make national service a part of growing up in America. We join in the call for all candidates to commit to make national service a priority in their first 100 days in office and to release bold plans. At a time when divisiveness threatens our national fabric, and lack of faith in government weakens our social contract, we need national service to strengthen communities, develop the next generation of leaders, and unite our country.

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