THE BLOG
01/13/2013 07:39 pm ET | Updated Mar 15, 2013

Revitalizing America: Whatever the Question, National Service Is an Answer

The upcoming 2013 presidential inauguration includes a day of community service connected to Martin Luther King Day. This is not just window dressing. It is about as American as it gets. It could be the leading edge of a service movement that should be expanded dramatically as part of the revitalization of America in President Obama's second term.

Lending a helping hand is part of a long American tradition noted in the early days of the new nation by French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville, who was struck by the civic involvement that characterized democracy in America. Serving together was then, and could be again, a way for communities divided into ideological factions to come together for the common good. In my recent observations, service helps people transcend partisan bickering. They might differ over health policy or the causes of urban youth unemployment, but they can agree to deliver Christmas toys for sick children or to support programs that prepare youth for jobs.

Whatever the question -- disaster relief, education, health care, foreign policy -- national and community service is an answer. Organizing full-time civilian service corps -- the civilian equivalent of a Marine Corps or Army Corps of Engineers -- can help address urgent priorities that the public cares about. An early slogan for AmeriCorps, the lead program of America's Corporation for National and Community Service, established in the Clinton administration, was "getting things done." For example:

  • FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, used a "FEMA corps" in the cleanup efforts after Hurricane Sandy.
  • YouthBuild, a national service program, contributes to environmentally-sound reconstruction of decaying neighborhoods by training at-risk urban youth in construction skills and putting them in line for good jobs.
  • City Year, an education-focused nonprofit on whose national board I serve, mobilizes young people 17-24 under the AmeriCorps flag to solve the high school dropout problem by serving as "near-peers" in schools, helping kids to stay in school and on track.

Similarly, health care could use paraprofessionals to bolster a stressed primary care system in a cost-effective way, contributing to both quality treatment and prevention. Young people joining a health corps for a year could be patient advocates, provide community health education, collect data, or prepare for careers in health professions while seeing health needs on the ground.

Service can also show the best of America to the world, providing a basis for moral leadership. Now that the likely Obama foreign policy team consists of war heroes who question war, we could use service as a way to showcase peace, returning to President John F. Kennedy's call to service that led to the Peace Corps. We can expand our domestic Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, to mobilize Americans to work on our community problems while showing other countries how to do the same. The U.S. Ambassador to Spain, Alan Solomont, partnered with a Spanish foundation to convene a summit on Service Innovation in March, bringing American experts and activists to meet with Spaniards seeking to lead a service movement, including business leaders and the Mayor of Madrid. Service is seen as a way to channel unemployed youth (Spain has one of Europe's highest rates) into productive work building the country while gaining skills.

In the U.S., interest on the part of young people in dedicating a year to national service far outpaces the number of slots. In 2009, Congress passed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act to expand the opportunities provided through the Corporation for National and Community Service, but then put funding for it right back on the chopping block. "We shouldn't pay volunteers" was one eternal argument. AmeriCorps members are volunteers only in the same sense that the military is "all-volunteer" -- people are not drafted or conscripted; they sign on voluntarily. Once serving, they are trained professionals, generally making a full-time commitment for a period of time, and earning a very modest paycheck and, in many cases, an equally modest education award that can help make college more affordable -- another way in which national service holds part of the answer to current American woes like high student debt.

Organized national and community service generally adds private sector resources to any public funding base provided by federal, state, or local allocations. Increasingly, companies mobilize employees to serve alongside the organizations they support, sometimes with the help of service advocates such as Points of Light Foundation, which evolved from seeds planted by President George H.W. Bush. A few visionary companies take this a step further and create their own service corps to develop their leaders of the future. IBM's Corporate Service Corps has given release time and training to thousands of employees to work on challenging societal problems in diverse teams all over the world, including in U.S. communities, as explicit leadership development. Only the best employees get the privilege of service.

In effective models, various types of service and sectors work synergistically to find opportunities that benefit each without straining limited government budgets. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was among the first to adopt the label "City of Service," tapping many social enterprises and business supporters to align efforts behind overarching goals, such as better health through widely available local food, which also provides opportunities for small-scale entrepreneurs. In Boston, school superintendent Carol Johnson has led the public schools to among the best (or at least most-improved) urban schools in the nation by utilizing a wide range of partners with useful programs, some of them occasional and volunteer-led, others employing full-time Americorps members such as City Year's youth corps. Mayor Alvin Brown of Jacksonville has created public-private partnerships to spread service throughout the community.

Service is not just altruistic; it has an economic stimulus component. In an innovation economy, in which job growth comes from spotting new opportunities, service can be part of the mix. It takes potential entrepreneurs to places with unmet needs, where their imaginations can be stimulated to find new solutions -- for example, the cloth incubators for premature babies who are not hospitalized, developed by EmbraceInnovation in San Francisco, or Khan Academy, the fast-growing on-line education service. The line between business-oriented entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs is blurry and easily crossed. In fact, as I have seen in my research as part of the U.S. Competitiveness Project at Harvard Business School, service is one way to enrich the business ecosystem that attracts talent and jobs to particular regions.

Civilian national service can build character and help young people gain a sense of purpose and efficacy. Service opens eyes and minds and develops skills in teamwork across diverse groups. Increasingly, the divide in America is income -- the content of the wallet trumping Martin Luther King's content of character -- but national service can help level the playing field, as youth from both privileged and less-advantaged neighborhoods find common cause and form lifelong bonds.

National and community service is more than a program. It is a mind-set and a way to shift the culture. While sporadic service days such as the one accompanying Obama's second term inauguration are more symbolic than sustainable, they still pay tribute to values and call on people's better selves. Let's not forget those intangible benefits. Service reminds us that creating a great nation and great communities is a task for all of us, together. It reminds us that making a living is essential but not sufficient unless we also see ourselves making a difference.

This presidential inaugural can inaugurate a national culture of service. Let's get more Americans serving together more often. Let's add a year of full-time service as an option and an opportunity for many more future leaders. Let's see service as the American way to solve problems and find common ground.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter holds the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professorship at Harvard Business School and is Chair and Director of the Harvard University Advanced Leadership Initiative. She is the author of 18 books, including Confidence and SuperCorp.