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Doing Better: Momentum builds for national service corps

As we emerge from a tough recession, there is a tremendous opportunity to come together to address some of our hardest challenges and re-invigorate our sense of civic responsibility and possibility.

Yet as a nation we seem held back by our lack of civic connection and social trust. The National Conference on Citizenship, for example, recently released its annual “civic health indicators” (volunteer work, contact with friends and family, confidence in institutions) and found a “broad decline” in 16 of 20 areas. A 2015 North Carolina Civic Health Index shows similar trends.

The Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics also found that volunteering in 2012 (the most recent data available) was at the lowest percentage (25.4 percent) since the government started counting in 2001.

In the face of this societal malaise, young people seem ready to change direction. A 2010 Pew survey found that 57 percent of millennials report having volunteered in the preceding six months. Thirty percent of millennials identify meaningful work as the single most important factor in a successful career, while 71 percent identify meaningful work as one of the top three most important factors.

In recent years, there have been 582,000 applications for only 80,000 annual AmeriCorps service positions and 150,000 applicants for the 4,000 annual Peace Corps slots. Similar acceptance rates are seen for organizations such as Teach for America.

Harnessing talent

To harness this under-leveraged young talent and energy and provide a civic rallying cry for us all, a bi-partisan group of leaders has formed to propose a 21st Century National Service System.

Co-chaired by retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal and the former head of George W. Bush’s Domestic Policy Council, John Bridgeland, the Aspen Institute’s Franklin Project envisions “at least one million young adults annually from all socioeconomic backgrounds (engaging) in a demanding year of full-time national service as a civic rite of passage to unleash the energy and idealism of each generation to address our nation’s challenges.”

Designed to be on par with the 1 million Americans who serve on active military duty, the Franklin Project (named for Benjamin Franklin, who advocated for voluntary citizen service) seeks to work with public and private partners to create the funding and support needed to realize this bold vision.

The cornerstone of the plan is to mobilize a national service corps of 18- to 24-year-olds to commit to a year of service through a number of potential channels. For example, through the Education Corps young adults could serve in our lowest-performing schools as tutors and near-peer mentors to try to stem our dropout epidemic. Conservation Corps members could provide much-needed capacity to address the backlog of projects in our national and state parks and waterways, and help with energy retrofitting and conservation efforts.

Through the proposed Health and Nutrition Corps, volunteers could work with proven nonprofits such as Health Leads to help families navigate the challenges of chronic illness – which affects 130 million Americans and accounts for 75 percent of our nation’s spending on health care. And the Veterans Corps could help ease the transition back to civilian life by providing an additional year of service for returning veterans – this time serving in their home communities.

Public support

The Franklin Project estimates the cost of scaling this effort to 1 million national service corps members at $10 billion a year through public funding and an additional $10 billion from private partners.

But a Columbia University study commissioned by the Franklin Projects suggests there could be a strong return on investment for taxpayers and society. Calculating the long-term economic benefits of these programs (such as reducing drop-out rates, lessening emergency room visits, increasing employment opportunities, etc.) as well as the longer-term benefits to participants (including job readiness), the study concludes economic benefits would be four times that of the expected costs.

There also appears to be strong public support, with 4 in 5 voters in a recent national survey supporting a year of voluntary service.

This fall, university presidents, along with business, foundation and government leaders from across North Carolina, will host McChrystal to talk about bringing the Franklin Project to our state. In the meantime, Elon University is launching a service year pilot next year focusing on Alamance County issues. It is also working to position its Student Professional Development Center to feature the service year options alongside graduate school and more traditional career opportunities. Davidson College, Duke University and N.C. State University are reportedly engaging in similar efforts.

It is time for this kind of bold action. We hope more follow and the inspired vision of a national year of service becomes a reality here in North Carolina.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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