Presidential 2016: The Power of a Service Year

Thanks to the persistence of social innovators across the country, every day we see strategies that are working and delivering results in a rapidly changing world. This ongoing blog series will highlight the voices of the more than 70 organizations in the America Forward Coalition, and their solutions to our country’s most pressing social problems, as well as examples of how this powerful work can be transformed into national change. Today we will hear from Shirley Sagawa, CEO and President of Service Year Alliance, about how service year programs can solve problems at scale, improve educational and employment opportunities, and connect Americans and diverse communities.

In January 2016, three organizations with the same mission — to make a year of service a common expectation and opportunity — decided to merge to form Service Year Alliance. We chose to merge because the cause was too important to let the “noise in the system” overpower the progress we could make together to enable every young American to have the opportunity to do a year of service before, during, or after college.

We believe in the power of a service year for several reasons.

First, service can solve problems at scale. We’ve seen this most prominently in education, where AmeriCorps programs like City Year, Citizen Schools, Reading Partners, Teach For America, and College Possible have received federal innovation grants based on their high levels of evidence. We’ve seen it after disasters — Flint’s water crisis, Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, and the Joplin tornado — when AmeriCorps programs stayed to rebuild in communities long after other volunteers went home. And we’ve seen it around the world, where Peace Corps and other programs are making amazing progress eradicating malaria.

Second, service year programs change the lives of those who serve, whether they are youth struggling to get on a pathway to employment, high school grads taking a gap year, or college-educated adults exploring new careers. Research shows that a year of service improves employment outlooks, education success, and a sense of purpose that people carry throughout their lives. Expanding service years can help solve youth unemployment, and linking the experience to money for college or to pay back loans also helps address excessive student loan indebtedness.

Perhaps most important, service year opportunities can connect Americans of diverse backgrounds in common purpose. Today, too many young people attend schools segregated not by law but by economics and housing. Only 14 percent of white students attend multi-racial schools. African-American students are more likely to attend a segregated school today than decades ago. A sizeable minority of Americans prefers to live in communities where people share their political views. And four in 10 white Americans have no friends of other races.

We can do better. Imagine what a different country we might have if every emerging adult had the opportunity to participate in a formative service year experience, building skills while getting to know people with different backgrounds.

Service Year Alliance, a joint venture of Be The Change, Inc. and the Aspen Institute, puts under one roof three sets of necessary capabilities: the convening power of the Aspen Institute Franklin Project, founded by our board chair, Gen. Stan McChrystal; the marketing savvy and grassroots organization of ServiceNation, a Be The Change, Inc. campaign; and the Service Year Exchange, a technology platform I incubated at the National Conference on Citizenship to connect young people to thousands of service year opportunities. We’ve also added a policy shop and a growth lab to round out the necessary capabilities.

We know we can’t achieve our goals without additional federal investment, and we are working closely with Voices for National Service and America Forward to advance our policy agenda. The expertise and advocacy assets both coalitions offer are critical to our success. Other members of our policy council include The Corps Network, YouthBuild USA, National Peace Corps Association, America’s Service Commissions, Campus Compact, and Building Bridges Coalition.

Our first policy foray has been to work with Voices for National Service to challenge the next President and Congress to:

  1. Make national service a national priority, starting by dramatically increasing the number of full-time service positions through the three successful federally supported civilian national service programs — AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, and YouthBuild — and asking every federal agency to create a service year corps to tackle important challenges cost-effectively.
  2. Deepen the impact of service year opportunities as a pathway to higher education and careers by increasing education awards and loan forgiveness for those who serve, making those education awards tax-free, creating incentives for higher education institutions to recognize and reward service years, and recruiting service year alumni into federal jobs.
  3. Encourage states, communities, higher education institutions, and nonprofit organizations, as well as international agencies, to create service year positions to solve locally identified problems by partnering with the Service Year Exchange, a new private sector technology platform designed to connect individuals who want to serve with certified publicly and privately funded service year positions.

Policymakers of both parties should embrace a year of service as a common expectation and opportunity. America should stand behind them — ready to serve or support those who do by offering improved employment opportunities, admission to college, and benefits that make a low-paid service year more achievable. We also need innovative organizations to create new service year positions — an affordable way to build human capital while changing the lives of the next generation at the same time. Our goal of one million serving annually is within reach — if all sectors of society step up to make a year of service possible.

Read more about how social innovators in the America Forward Coalition, like Service Year Alliance, are solving America’s biggest problems in communities across the country every day in our briefing book, Moving America Forward: Innovators Lead the Way to Unlocking America’s Potential, and join the conversation. Follow @ServiceYr and @America_Forward, and tell us how service has changed your life and your community using #AFPresidential16.

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