Update: On March 26, 2009, the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act was passed in Congress. See the highlights of the bill here.
National Service got a shot in the arm when service-minded President Barack Obama was elected in 2008, and landmark legislation was passed in 2009 to encourage citizens to become involved in their communities through volunteerism.
History of National Service
National service has been discussed in terms of mandatory or voluntary service. Americans prefer voluntary efforts, so the only mandatory service in our history has been conscripted military service, and even that does not exist today. Voluntary national service involves using the power of common citizens to address social needs throughout our country and even abroad.
Perhaps the most famous of the national service programs was the PeaceCorps, established in the 1960s during the Kennedy administration. This extraordinary and popular program continues to send U.S. citizens abroad, usually for two years, to host countries. The volunteers typically work in education, agriculture, and infrastructure building jobs, and live within the communities, making friends for the U.S.
But, before that, there was the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), set up by Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression of the 1930s, that put millions of people back to work, rebuilding the infrastructure of the nation. The CCC was instrumental in helping the U.S. get through the depression. My own late father spoke fondly of his time spent as a barber servicing the workmen of the CCC in the south.
National Service Today
Meanwhile, ServiceNation was founded in 2008, to advocate for voluntary national service. The organization has been quite successful in publicizing and pushing for increased citizen involvement in addressing the country's social, educational, and infrastructure needs.
"The ultimate vision of ServiceNation is an America in which, by 2020, 100 million citizens will volunteer time in schools, workplaces, and faith-based and community institutions each and every year (up from 61 million today), and that increasing numbers of Americans annually will commit a year of their lives to national service."
Notably, ServiceNation has created an impressive coalition of organizations ranging from the United Way to the Boys and Girls Clubs, the Special Olympics, and corporate and private foundations such as the Bank of America Foundation, and the Case Foundation.
ServiceNation is more a campaign than an organization. That campaign has been organized by Be the Change, City Year, Civic Enterprises, and the Points of Light Institute. This group held the ServiceNation Summit in September of 2008. It was chaired by Caroline Kennedy and featured both Presidential candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain.
At the same time, Senators Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch introduced the Serve America Act (summary of Act) in Congress. The legislation asks 175,000 more Americans to give a year of service to address our nation's challenges.
How successful will this crescendo of voices calling for national service be? Our guess is that it comes at an unusual historic moment in American history, and is likely to become a milestone for volunteer service in America.
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