Last week, experts, thinkers, and practitioners in a variety of sectors gathered together to discuss the biggest challenges our country faces — and some of the ways we can address them — at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Many of us were particularly concerned with the decline of understanding and empathy among Americans of different backgrounds, the rise of partisanship, the corresponding decline of democratic norms, and loss of a common experience among Americans. This isn’t surprising, and while we might be rightfully celebrating Independence Day this weekend, we should be concerned that data now demonstrates the civic health of our nation is at risk.
America herself is a big idea — one borne out of the idealism of earlier centuries and imperfectly executed since our first day of Independence. Whether they gathered in privileged grand forums like Aspen or in church basements or city halls, our greatest leaders and activists of years past have iterated and improved upon this country, time and again, because they’ve always known she was a work in progress. We should be rightfully distressed at this moment in time at the state of our republic, but the American people have not ceased to search for big ideas that will benefit our lives and our communities, and continue to improve upon the American project.
At the Ideas Festival, one solution came up repeatedly as a way to address each of the speakers important concerns: universal national service. And while it might seem audacious, we’ve done bold things as a nation together before, and Americans know that it’s far past time for us to focus on what we can do better, together.
Our country is just beginning a national conversation on what should be most important to us going into an election season and what our leaders can do to ensure our neighborhoods and communities can thrive. Creating a voluntary system of national service so that every young person has the opportunity to serve our country is the bold idea we deserve, and the right one for our time.
National service — including civilian, military, and public service — can be a pathway to a more equal, more united, and more civically engaged country, and offers a cost-effective solution to some of our most pressing challenges. I’m proud to be working with the first coalition of its kind, built across military and civilian service lines, on Serve America Together. This campaign to make national service part of growing up in America launched last week with a challenge to presidential candidates to step up and show us how they intend to make this future possible.
As an AmeriCorps alum, I’ve built bonds of kinship with those who have served in homeless shelters, national parks, schools, and health clinics around the country, as well as in all of America’s armed services. We’ve developed the mutual respect born out of a sense that, while we each did it in different ways, all of us stepped up to serve to ensure that our nation is safe and that the people within it have the ability to thrive. By expanding national service, we would be allowing all young Americans the opportunity to be a part of a shared experience like mine that brings people together from diverse backgrounds and in turn, strengthens our democracy.
Serve America Together will bring this vision to life. The campaign aims to build awareness, engage presidential candidates, empower communities, and work with Congress to pass legislation that will make voluntary universal national service a common expectation and opportunity for all young Americans.
National service is not only good policy — it’s good politics. When polled, 61% of voters are more likely to vote for a candidate who would guarantee funding to establish a position for every qualified national service applicant. And 75% of Americans support national service as a strategy to address unmet needs in our communities and empower the individuals serving.
I’m confident that the candidates will respond to our Serve America Together Presidential Challenge that calls on every candidate to be bold in their plans to scale national service and make it a priority in their first 100 days in office.
I’m honored to work on a big idea that resonates across the ideological spectrum, particularly in this time of division and hyper-partisanship. Americans are hungry for an election cycle in which candidates compete to see who can go bigger and be bolder on solutions that will make a meaningful difference in our lives. 2020 is the national service election: it’s time to unite our country, create pathways to opportunity, and focus on what we can do better, together.