THE BLOG
01/19/2015 08:48 am ET Updated Mar 21, 2015

Service Can Unite Us to Fulfill Dr. King's Vision of a Beloved Community

Today, we pay tribute to the legacy and memory of the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by coming together to make a difference in our communities through service. This "day on, not a day off" is a chance to honor King's selfless dedication to our nation's long battle for Civil Rights and social justice. Yet, it also serves as a stark reminder of the broad challenges we still face as a nation.

We were recently reminded of these challenges by the tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; Cleveland, Ohio; and elsewhere over the past several months. These disturbing events have laid bare the raw and painful divisions that persist in our society. However, in the wake of these tragedies, we have the opportunity to advance America's idea: The creation of a society in which everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, parentage or zip code, has the opportunity to thrive.

Dr. King had a vision of a "beloved community" in which all people can share in the prosperity of a just and inclusive society. In Dr. King's beloved community, racism and all forms of prejudice give way to an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. Poverty, hunger and homelessness are not tolerated because standards of humanity will not allow for it. Dr. King believed that ultimately, a great nation is defined by compassion and inclusion, and that no citizen can reach his or her full potential unless everyone enjoys the benefits of full humanity. Now, decades later, we continue to work toward realizing this vision.

The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and too many other young people of color reveals that our society has undervalued a large sector of the youth population, leaving them marginalized with few opportunities to harness their energy and talents to succeed. Spurred by these recent tragic events, our country should commit to investing in more opportunities for all young Americans by bringing national service programs to scale in order to heal divisions in our society and realize Dr. King's vision of a beloved community.

The Civil Rights movement changed our laws. Now, a shared experience through national service can change our hearts and minds.

Service programs create a space where people who are different in every way can line up next to each other and come together to work on a common challenge. National service is gender-neutral, age non-specific, community rich, and builds trust across lines of race, class, and socioeconomic background, even in the face of deeply rooted tensions. Service programs strengthen communities, bridge barriers, create solutions to social problems, and help young people develop leadership and job skills that better equip them to advance their careers and education and become productive, compassionate citizens.

Leading national service organizations like the Corps Network, City Year, The Mission Continues, Youthbuild, Public Allies, Green City Force, Team Rubicon and LIFT have shown that if you give people the opportunity to serve, they can become strong civic assets and leaders while addressing pressing problems in our society. Let us unite the two strands of Dr. King's work in economic and social justice by investing in more service opportunities to reconnect more youth to meaningful educational and career pathways. Now, more than ever, is the time to do so.

Four conditions have emerged that make this moment ripe for national civilian service and the expansion of opportunity:

1. America continues to move out of the biggest recession since World War II. While the economy has improved with increased economic output and a growing job market, the middle class remains stagnated and far too many still struggle in poverty.

2. The Iraq War ended in 2011 and the combat mission in Afghanistan ended formally on December 28, 2014. The ending of these wars will provide opportunities to increase investments in social and economic capital.

3. The 2016 open presidential election is a great opportunity to commit ourselves to big, bold new ideas and opportunities.

4. The era of new technology and social media multiplies and increases the speed of human connection, amplifying opportunities for innovation and shared vision making citizen action stronger than ever.

We now have a real opportunity to achieve Dr. King's vision of a beloved community built on compassion and goodwill for all. National service can help build the trust that is key to achieving these core values.

When people from vastly different backgrounds, with different political or philosophical beliefs, come together through trust and compassion, we can overcome great challenges and reconcile conflicts peacefully as Dr. King envisioned.

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, let us commit to establishing a year of national service as a rite of passage for all young Americans so that "where will your service year be?" becomes a commonly asked question in our society. Let us build a civic army of one million young people engaged in national service every year to move us closer to Dr. King's vision of a society in which all people are afforded the opportunity to fulfill their potential. Together, we can build the beloved community.