Everything seems up for grabs. Disruption is thematic—establishments are on their heels. In 2027, looking back, how will our intervening work be measured? Status quo? No that is not possible. Progress? We’ll see.
Too many, and I mean way too many, look to politics to find hope. President Joe Biden will prove a much more healing presence, but then the bar is painfully low. Washington is, mostly, not a place to mine for hope. It is more likely to be found in our neighborhoods and communities—people helping people. Ultimately it must be found in ourselves and our relationships with others.
There is a light, although not nearly bright enough at this moment, which I find hopeful.
General Stan McChrystal, a consummate leader under the most challenging of circumstances, now chairs Service Year Alliance and has a profound hope: that “where did you do your year of service?” becomes as common as “where did you go to school?”
The CEO of Service Year Alliance is Jesse Colvin, an honored veteran who is especially known to Marylanders who vote in Maryland’s first Congressional District where he ran for Congress in 2018. Colvin is fortunate; he now leads an especially important mission rather than arguing as one of 435 in the halls of Congress.
My father, who served in the Pacific Theater in WWII, was fond of recounting the story of his bunkmate, a soldier from the Bronx, in New York City. Dad, from a small town in southern Missouri, received an education in humanity from the realities of life, well beyond his small town.
Too few of the privileged today go beyond a textbook in a school compartmentalized by realities—the realities of parent’s ambitions with checkbook in hand. Today public schools, in the minds of many, are not the first choice. So many of those who go on to lead in private and public affairs go from school to school and then with their credentials secured, into business or the professions. Not only do they not sleep in bunks, but forfeit the lessons of life fully learned.
The military is now voluntary. And for many a real boost in life. Hopefully circumstances will keep military service voluntary. But national service should be experienced broadly. Service, as I have experienced it, is always hopeful—in our civic lives service organizations build our aspirations and our empathy.
I have friends and acquaintances that served in the Peace Corps and Teach for America. Each relate that their experiences were life-changing for them and they hope for those served. Alexis de Tocqueville, in studying and then reporting on America, found Americans selfless collaborations to improve their neighborhood and beyond especially hopeful for the nation’s future.
Jesse Colvin spelled out Service Year Alliance’s hope in a recent conversation.The goal: one million members helping to renew their communities as they enrich their lives. Jesse believes that going from the current estimate of sixty-five thousand who complete a service year experience, to one million will dramatize the importance of a service year. “One million will be an important tipping point towards making a year of service a common expectation and opportunity for all young Americans” Colvin notes. “Reaching that milestone will result in “where did you do your service?”, being asked over and over.
Service Year recognizes 700 organizations that provide a service opportunity. But reaching the goal of one million in annual service will require a boost from Washington. Everybody who opts for a service year should be able to get by financially—sacrifice will be necessary, but basic support is essential. President Biden can underscore his efforts to unify Americans by recognizing the value of the long game. Politics often favors short term tactics; supporting a service year is strategic and can be an enduring legacy.
In some ways the ultimate question will be framed by those with discretion. Will those who think in terms of “gap years” begin to consider service in the gap? Will those with the discretion to choose job candidates from lists of dozens or hundreds begin to value candidates who have a service year on their resume? And what will parents think? Often parents and their offspring are pushed or pulled along by the prevailing sparkle—hopefully building communities shoulder to shoulder with the full spectrum of humanity will sparkle. It’s enduring contribution should always shine.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.