Ben Downing: National Service

Mar 14, 2017

It is nearly impossible to avoid discussions about what divides us. Urban vs. Rural. Boomers vs. Millenials. Conservative vs. Progressive. Red state vs. Blue States. These discussions don’t just say something about the different groups their proponents try to drop folks into, they also say something about what is missing in our society - a shared experience.

This insight isn’t new. Many have recognized it. Some see it and focus their attention on a media landscape shattered into a million pieces, allowing us to select the reality and facts of our choosing. Some see it and focus their attention on political reform, calling for public financing of campaigns and independent redistricting commissions, to lessen the influence of parties & donors on the electoral process. I see it and can’t help but turn my focus to a single idea - national service.

For some time, there has been a growing desire by all ages, but especially young people, to be directly involved in solving problems they see in their communities. This desire has fueled the growth of civic enterprises like City Year, Year Up, Teach for America and more. Taken together they have allowed hundreds of thousands of young people to serve their communities, improve the quality of life of their fellow citizens and develop leadership skills. They have done all of this while also meeting and working side by side with fellow volunteers from different backgrounds, classes, communities, races, creeds and genders.

These experiences have been offered thanks in part to a mix of private and, sporadic, public support. Today, 80,000 AmeriCorps and 244,000 Senior Corps volunteers serve our country & their communities, supported by the $1.1B budget of the Corporation for National & Community Service. The .03% of the federal budget we dedicate to service might be the best investment we make and it provides a partial blueprint to address divisions in our society.

Truly national service - community, military or otherwise - or at the very least much greater support for those who serve, could have many benefits. First, volunteers have the experience of working side by side with individuals who come from very different backgrounds. This helps shatter some myths that divide us, creates greater understanding and makes those volunteers much more open to the idea that their experience might not be the same as all their fellow citizens. Second, a program of national service on a greater scale would begin to create a shared experience in our broader society. Just as service in the military during World War I & II formed the common ground from which business & political leaders worked together in the following years, national service could form that shared experience today and into the future. Finally, the model of service in America is highly entrepreneurial. Increasing support for these efforts will produce new ideas, energy and approaches to tackling long standing problems such as poverty, criminal justice, community development and more.

I am the proud son of a Peace Corps alum and brother of an Americorps alum. I have seen the indelible impact those experiences had on my mother and sister. On a much smaller scale, I joined a group of Tufts University students who gave up our winter break in 2005/6 to assist Hurricane Katrina relief efforts on the Gulf Coast, an experience I cherish to this day. Service is powerful and it is empowering.

Citizens are the most important actor in our democracy. That is true 365 days a year, not just on election day. To tap the unlimited power of active citizens, we need to create many more opportunities for Americans to come together and serve. If we do this, not only will we be blown away by the spirit and talent of our fellow citizens, but those conversations about what divides us, will soon change to conversations about our shared experience serving our nation & community.

Ben Downing Represented the westernmost district in the Massachusetts Senate from 2006 to 2016. He is currently a vice president at Nexamp, a Massachusetts-based solar energy company, and an adjunct faculty member at Tufts University.

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