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Citizen Service Can Revitalize Our Democracy

By Michael Thorning

Friday, September 12, 2014

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Today marks the 20th anniversary of AmeriCorps, our country’s foremost domestic service program. Nearly 900,000 Americans have served their nation and communities through AmeriCorps, each pledging to get things done. In two decades, they have completed more than one billion hours of service and improved the lives of millions of Americans.

AmeriCorps members can be found teaching and tutoring in low performing schools, helping veterans readjust to civilian life, and fighting poverty in our neediest neighborhoods. These individuals connect poor families to health services, and conserve the environment by building trails, restoring parks and protecting watersheds. When disaster strikes, AmeriCorps members are there to help.

The AmeriCorps Pledge

I will get things done for America – to make our people safer, smarter, and healthier.
I will bring Americans together to strengthen our communities.
Faced with apathy, I will take action.
Faced with conflict, I will seek common ground.
Faced with adversity, I will persevere.
I will carry this commitment with me this year and beyond.
I am an AmeriCorps member, and I will get things done.

Members support well-known organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, Teach for America, and City Year. But they are also enmeshed in the workings of local, community and faith based groups in cities and towns everywhere. In doing so, AmeriCorps has a multiplier effect, engaging millions of additional community volunteers for these organizations. AmeriCorps is indispensable to making America a better place.

Recommitting to the Cause of Service: An Era of Big Citizenship

BPC’s Commission on Political Reform recognized that service can be an effective measure in reducing the hyperpartisanship that defines the current political era. In fact, the Commission made it one of its main recommendations. “It is time,” the Commission said, “for an era of big citizenship.”

The Commission recommends individuals ages 18-28 commit to at least one year of community and national service. This can be through programs such as the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps, in the military, in the public or non-profit sector, or in elected or appointed office. It has been the experience of this country, though, that its citizens need not be conscripted for this cause, only asked and provided the opportunity.

More than 500,000 potential applicants for the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps are turned away because no slot exists for them. In 2009, with overwhelming bipartisan support, Congress authorized 250,000 new positions for AmeriCorps. However, this ramp up has not been realized. President Kennedy originally envisioned the Peace Corps enabling 100,000 Americans to serve each year, yet today only about 8,000 annually have the opportunity.

“Our nation needs to foster a next generation of leaders who can work across party lines, race, ethnicity, and income levels to get things done for our country. Veterans of civilian national service, like AmeriCorps Alums, are the bedrock of that leadership and are working in the private, nonprofit, and public sectors every day to strengthen our communities and country.”

– John Bridgeland, former Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, USA Freedom Corps Director, & member of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform.

If Congress and the president are committed to bringing the country closer together, binding up the divisions of our polarized political environment, and getting government working again at all levels, then they must fully pledge to expand these opportunities to meet the demand.

This, however, cannot be the cause of the federal government alone. State and local governments, colleges and universities, and the non-profit and private sectors all can play a role in increasing the number of opportunities for citizens to serve.

Citizen Service: The Fabric of America

Service has an impact beyond its tangible outcomes. It binds individuals of diverse backgrounds together in common purpose, and can foster a new generation of civic-minded leaders who can work together to overcome our nation’s biggest challenges. Not surprisingly, it has a history of bipartisan support, including from presidents of both parties.

This idea has already shown to be fruitful. Today, AmeriCorps alumni run corporate social responsibility programs at major companies, lead non-profits, and serve as mayors and members of Congress. In 2012, U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (NM) became the first AmeriCorps alumni elected to the Senate. Similar accomplishments can be said of the Peace Corps and other service initiatives.

National and community service is a worthy investment we can make for generations to come. As the millions of Americans who have already served have demonstrated, it is the work of our own hands that will determine our destiny as a nation, and we must all be a part of it.