Thursday, November 6, 2008

How To Save America? National Service

On the morning of September 13, 2001 I read several newspapers and was struck by two things:
  1. the world was saying that they were with us ("Nous sommes toutes Americains," as the usually very critical Le Monde stated)
  2. I had spent most of the night before with my friends identifying caravans heading to New York City and discussing how we were going to organize with our fellow students a civic response.
Of course America largely squandered both of these responses and did so rapidly and repeatedly.

I voted for the Obama campaign because I agreed with their policy proposals on national service.
Not because I think that America will now become a Deep Blue paradise.

As an Americorps*VISTA alum I have seen first hand the transformative potential of service of this kind in the U.S. and I would suggest that there is a significant pool of talented, well-trained, and civically-minded people between 18 and 35 that are available and anxious to be engaged in their communities. America is ready for more civic engagement, I think this is true for the college-aged as well as for those of retirement age (just look at the RSVP program also under the Americorps umbrella).

Actually, when I reported to my orientation for my year of service I was most surprised by the median age of those hundreds of fellow volutneers. I went in expecting 19 year olds and I was surprised to see so many people in their 50's and older. I was also struck by the similarities of economic status at my orientation. Where I would have expected primarily trustafarians and rich kids I was hearing stories of mothers being recruited by the nonprofit organizations that provided the community low-income housing or subsidized childcare in their poor neighborhoods.

Their stories were not so different from mine: I had been working full-time and going to school for 13 years, off and on, and had next-to-no savings and no health insurance when I broke my arm and couldn't wait tables anymore. I was finally going to graduate from college in two months and I was tired of working food service and retail jobs that could care less about my social science education. That's when I saw an ad that paid little, but was involved in the community and offered a health benefit and very much wanted someone with my skill set. It turned out I'd be working in the Americorps*VISTA program.

I do think that there is a large number of people that will be willing to serve in the next five years, voluntarily. I predict that historians will view this volunteerism as simply an economic response to the deterioration of the American economy - like the WPA during the New Deal. But I think that these will be unduly cynical historians. It's true that public works are going to be necessary to shore up the American economy over the next six or eight years, but that's a coincidence.

Americans are looking for a way to reconnect to one another after decades of civic decay at the hands of people that say from one side of their mouth that: they are promoting freedom while they torture, stand for the rule of law and strip prisoners of basic rights, dispensed with the transparency and regulation essential to modern capital markets and claim to still be the beacon of free enterprise. That course has left us all feeling more alone.

Look here for the opportunity to serve, at the Office of the President-Elect; and here at the home page for Americorps.

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