THE BLOG
09/13/2013 12:47 pm ET | Updated Nov 13, 2013

Citizen Power, Multiplied

"I want to be a professional football player in the NFL," Abdullah said, on the first day of a professional networking class he signed up for at his middle school.

Jessica Fick, a former member of AmeriCorps, was facilitating the class with Charlie Bini, an AmeriCorps Teaching Fellow who was serving at the Louise A. Spencer School in Newark, NJ. Their goal was to help each student discover a dream and begin mapping a path to achieving it.

With the help of Joelle and Young, two eager volunteers from the global-consulting and IT-services company Cognizant, Jessica and Charlie had planned a weekly exploration of careers and how to build a professional network--a class not typically offered in public schools. Together, they were providing this innovative curriculum as part of the expanded day being managed by one of the school's non-profit partners: Citizen Schools, the organization I co-founded in Boston in 1995.

Hundreds of AmeriCorps members like Jessica and Charlie serve each year in middle schools across the country through Citizen Schools, helping to ensure that students don't miss out on dreams just because they haven't discovered them yet.

And they, in turn, mobilize and enable thousands more volunteers like Joelle and Young, from Cisco, Cognizant, Google, Fidelity Investments, and Bank of America and on and on, to show those students what those dreams can look like.

AmeriCorps members at Citizen Schools build academic skills--a recent external evaluation showed Citizen Schools students erasing achievement gaps in passage of standardized tests, on-time high school graduation, and college enrollment--but they also do the kind of educating that we don't measure much on standardized tests. They build social capital and professional networks.

Knowing people, and knowing how to meet and exchange ideas with them, has been associated with higher earnings, better health, and happier lives over all. Each relationship a young person builds has the potential to remove an obstacle, ignite a new passion, and expand a future. And building a habit of meeting new people doesn't just help you get a job--increasingly it is what makes you successful on the job.

Networking is just one of the essential skills that schools aren't really set up to cultivate. We may be defining standards for the knowledge and skills students need to be deemed proficient in each grade, but the moments of discovery that begin journeys to success in our changing world are left to chance. Or, more likely, purchased--by parents who can afford the enrichment, extracurriculars, camps, and tutoring that multiply the range of experiences their children will encounter.

For students in low-income families--at schools without athletics, band, art, or even a science lab--where are new dreams supposed to come from?

Back in Newark, Jessica set out to motivate Abdullah to widen his horizons. A quick bit of online research revealed that professional football players only play in the NFL for three years on average. And so, in the next class, she shared this statistic with Abdullah.

"Okay, if you'll be playing in the NFL from ages 23 to 26," she said, "what do you want your career to be from 26 to 60?"

For the rest of the semester, Abdullah was systematically introduced to a range of interesting careers, from FBI agent to mechanical engineer. Joelle and Young were particularly keen to spark enthusiasm for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. They aren't educators either, but they know their field is hungry for talent and diversity. Just 14 percent of engineers in America are women, and only five percent are African-Americans.

By volunteering to teach, they were going right to the source of the pipeline. The Lemelson Center at MIT has sponsored research indicating that the leading predictor of which children go into STEM careers is passion for STEM when in middle school. Other research says that the leading reason those not passionate about STEM careers lack interest is that they do not personally know any engineers, or know what engineers do.

The two Cognizant volunteers teamed up with Jessica and Charlie to change that. And at the end of the semester, Abdullah put on his Sunday best and attended a networking event at Cognizant's world headquarters in Teaneck. There, Joelle and Young had invited a couple dozen colleagues and guests to meet their young students. Abdullah worked the room, asking every employee what he needed to do to become a mechanical engineer.

Jessica, Charlie, Joelle, and Young played pivotal roles in educating Abdullah. And they did so as citizens, serving in their community.

From the citizen soldiers who fought for independence to the citizen activists who fought for civil rights, America has met its biggest challenges when its people get directly involved. The impulse to join together with neighbors and make things better is one of the things Alexis de Tocqueville noted was unique about America in the early 19th century.

National service is citizen power brought to scale. The programs that harness it through AmeriCorps are showing compelling results in health, disaster relief, education, and more. At Citizen Schools, we've seen how volunteers leverage each other and create ripple effects in the community, as ten AmeriCorps members at a school bring into their classrooms a hundred volunteer mentors who would not have otherwise connected their networks into those students' lives.

In 2009, bipartisan majorities in Congress passed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act and President Obama signed the bill into law. The Serve America Act calls for an ambitious scaling of AmeriCorps to 250,000 full-time members per year. But because of gridlock in Congress, actual funding for national service has been flat since the bill was passed.

This needs to change. By investing a small amount, we can deploy a few hundred thousand leaders like Jessica and Charlie, and they in turn can mobilize and support millions of citizen mentors like Joelle and Young. Together they can lift up opportunity while strengthening our economy and our country.

I sometimes say that education is not a spectator sport. Service is what enables us to get on the field. And whether Abdullah makes it to the NFL or not, citizens have made his chances of winning go way up.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute to recognize the power of national service, in conjunction with the National Day of Service and Remembrance on September 11th and the 20th anniversary of the signing of the AmeriCorps legislation on September 20th. The Franklin Project is a policy program at the Aspen Institute working to create a 21st century national service system that challenges all young people to give at least one year of full-time service to their country. To see all the posts in this series, click here. To learn more about the Franklin Project, click here.