A Call to Service Is Essential to Building Back Better

The new administration has an opportunity to catalyze new thinking that speaks directly to the needs of our times.

Over the years, I’ve had occasion to write about the essential nature of national and community service and of the federal government’s role in making service open to all. Given the events of the last two months, culminating in the violent spectacle of January 6th and the divisions they represent, it is clear that the role of service is more vital than ever. Indeed, a renewed federal commitment to service and civic engagement is foundational to truly “building back better,” as President-elect Biden has pledged.

First, let’s be clear: Service will not solve all of the deep-seated problems we face. It is clear our nation is riven with racial, economic and political division. Communities, across the political, social, racial and ethnic spectrums feel disconnected and disenfranchised, often for very good reasons. Income, education, health and opportunity gaps are real and growing as a consequence of the pandemic. The inequities plaguing our nation cannot be ignored. Addressing them will take a massive, multi-faceted strategy. But as part of that strategy, we must find ways to build real cohesion within communities during a time of massive breakdowns in the discourse and structures that normally help us find common purpose.  

As the political scientist Robert Putnam famously wrote, “community connectedness is not just about warm fuzzy tales of civic triumph. Social capital makes us smarter, healthier, safer, richer and better able to govern a just and stable democracy.” The data on this is clear: Engaged people in engaged communities experience far more connectivity, far more trust, and far more faith in others, including with those of differing races or ethnicities, political or religious perspectives. Today, it’s not so much that there is a shortage of opportunities for engagement, it is that too often they lack the kind of diversity that can effectively build the broad cohesion we need. Service can uniquely help do that.

If we are going to truly build back better, if we are going to find ways to overcome the anger and distrust that so dominates today, one of the most important things we can do is double down on support for expanded service opportunities for all. In other words, the new administration has an extraordinary opportunity to not only revitalize the national service movement, but to also catalyze new thinking that speaks directly to the needs of our times.

To accomplish this, three thoughts come immediately to mind. First, while volunteerism and service can help alleviate some of the symptoms of social, racial, and economic dislocation (i.e., literacy), there also needs to be a focus on the root causes of that dislocation as well. For example, we know that technology has an enormous impact on the way work is done and that, for all its positive benefits, it has also exacerbated many economic challenges, especially in the Rust Belt states. Thus, one part of a revitalized national service agenda could focus on those communities that have been particularly ravaged by the disappearance of industrial era industries. Why not use national service as a part of a robust national strategy to expand retraining and reskilling to those who suffer the most from this long evident transformation? The need is massive and current resources woefully inadequate. Why not create a national corps of talented young people solely focused on improving tech literacy and basic tech skills across affected communities?

Second, a national service agenda for our times must be led from the top. A revitalized national service strategy could include a “service corps” at every agency. A number of agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Veterans Affairs Department, already have such programs, so we know how to do it. For example, the Housing and Urban Development Department could have a corps focused on helping improve financial literacy among public housing residents; the Labor and Transportation departments could partner with unions to create a kind of “apprentice corps” through which people could learn trade skills in high demand (this would fit nicely with investments in infrastructure). The possibilities are almost endless. 

Third, a revitalized national service agenda should drive self-reflection by the service community itself. That extraordinary community has done a tremendous amount of good over many decades, but it is important to consider how inadequate cultural knowledge or other factors may contribute to implicit biases in funding decisions or otherwise limit the impact of individual programs. This kind of reflection is important to any movement and the service movement is no different.

An expanded national service agenda must also have broad political support. Given the fiscal challenges ahead, the Biden administration will have to work hard to solidify bipartisan support in Congress. That will not be easy. But given the overwhelming evidence that service can be a tremendous force multiplier in building common purpose, a focus on its unique “returns on investment” should provide ample rationale. One could even envision the two parties working together on an annual national service summit, akin to the National Conference on Volunteerism and Service which used to bring thousands of service members together to celebrate service initiatives of all kinds. Such a gathering, solely centered on building community, could be a powerful tool and send a powerful message.

Most importantly and as part of building back better, we need to rapidly synthesize the best thinking on the topic and turn ideas into action. A revitalized national service agenda need not reinvent wheels; instead, it should seek to capture and expand a far broader array of programs and strategies than ever before. The bottom line is simple: Little will do more to help us build a spirit of unity than finding common purpose and building communal cohesion. And that’s precisely what service does. It is hard to imagine a more worthwhile investment.