03/21/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

It is Time to Serve

Americans love heroes, and leaders are crucial. So when we look at the accomplishments of the civil rights era, we tend to focus on Martin Luther King, Jr. However, as Diane Nash, a student sit-in leader in the '60s, points out, the actions of ordinary people are decisive in creating successful movements. "If people think it was Martin Luther King's movement, then today they--young people--are more likely to say 'Gosh, I wish we had a Martin Luther King here today to lead us.' ... If people knew how that movement started, then the question they would ask themselves is, 'What can I do?"

Americans have often responded to this question by pushing forward the movements of their time. Millions of regular Americans made the impossible possible. They were abolitionists who fought (and are still fighting) to end slavery, seamstresses and lettuce pickers who struggled to establish labor unions, suffragists who championed voting rights for women, and organizers who worked to secure civil rights for African Americans. While many braved fire hoses during civil rights protests, others drove shuttles for people boycotting bus companies or tutored adults in basic reading skills to increase the number of eligible voters. Through these mundane activities, ordinary people changed laws, shaped a new culture, and drove America closer to ideals of social justice. One movement sparked others, as public intellectuals and politicians debated whether fare wages, decent housing, and opportunities for education were rights of citizenship. Most recently, those movements have spawned a new set: insistence on a clean, sustainable environment, appreciation for immigrants' contributions to our society, and respect for sexual diversity.

In his inaugural address, President Obama reminded us "It has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things -- some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom." The social injustices of our time, intensified by our recent fiscal crisis, challenge us to replicate the contributions of earlier generations of Americans. We are in an historic moment. Right now. This is what an historic moment looks like. And every one of us should be asking, "What can I do?"

Most of the grassroots organizers of the past shaped our democracy through voluntary service. In her book America the Principled, Rosabeth Moss Kanter postulates that "community service can bring us together, under leaders who inspire and engage us." President-elect Obama inspired others when he spent Martin Luther King Day painting walls at a local community center in Washington, DC. And people across the United States from all walks of life responded to his invitation to serve:

o Two hundred volunteers turned out to help the League of Conservation Voters, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and several corporations install solar panels at Sousa Junior High School and to increase the energy efficiency of hundreds of homes in a Washington, DC neighborhood.

o At the Korean Resource Center in Los Angeles, veteran volunteers were joined by first-timers Sharon Allerson, Isaiah McGee, and Eileen Weisinger, who signed up through, a website created by the Presidential Inaugural Committee. The volunteers educated children about tolerance and the civil rights movement. They read books and created art to share their own dreams.

o Lisa Jillson, a marketing manager at Chicago-based Allstate Insurance, and her co-workers sifted through and organized piles of textbooks that had been gathering dust inside closets at a local school.

o College students with Campus Kitchens assembled food donations in Waco, TX.

As single acts they seem like "community light." But multiply these actions by a million or more. Yes, millions came out on January 19 to make their communities cleaner, safer, and stronger. That's a movement. It's called service. National service.

Now, as with any social movement, we need to codify these values in public policy. Alan Khazei, David Gergen, and Steven Waldman have made a strong case for passing the Serve America Act, which would provide funding and incentives for service programs so that many more Americans can serve at any and every stage of their lives.

Alan Khazei is one of the visionaries behind the Serve America Act. He's spent his life "turning on people's justice nerves so they become active, contributing citizens in our democracy." With his colleagues at BeTheChange, Inc., Khazei has garnered the support of politicians on both sides of the aisle, including Senators Kennedy, Hatch, McCain, Cochran, and Dodd. As senators, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were strong supporters. However, the significant support the initiative enjoyed during the campaign waned in the extended discussions about the economic recovery package. While the American Recovery and Reinvestment act signed in law yesterday by President Obama makes a down payment to expand national service programs by 16,000 volunteers, it's insufficient. We need to intervene, to insist that national service is a priority.

Khazei has urged prompt action: "Within his first 100 days in office, President Obama needs to support a significant expansion of national service programs, like AmeriCorps, in line with the detailed plan he proposed during his campaign." AmeriCorps is a federal program that was launched by President Clinton. It offers opportunities for adults to serve through a network of partnerships with local and national nonprofit groups. Candidate Obama proposed increasing the size of AmeriCorps from 75,000 to 250,000 annual members. President Obama could sign this into law. This would not only fulfill Obama's campaign promise. Expanding Americorps is not just a way to feel good. It would address some of the most pressing problems we face as a country. For example, it would mitigate the effects of unemployment through a stronger social safety net. As Khazei and Gergen highlighted in their recent op-ed, "The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that if unemployment rises to 9% the number of Americans driven into poverty will increase by anywhere from 7 million to 10 million. Expanding the number of AmeriCorps volunteers working with low-income families in schools, clinics, and non-profits is one of the fastest and least expensive ways to reinforce our social safety net."

Americorps provides jobs for those hardest hit by unemployment--the young. The program would put hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic young people to work. But because their pay is through a stipend for their public service, the total cost per year for a full-time AmeriCorps member is $10,970.

We're with Khazei when he asserts that "in a time of crisis and uncertainty, you will see what Americans have always done best: gone to work, united, to overcome great challenges and build a better future." One day of action was a good start, and President Obama provided a model for getting involved. Other generations of Americans have created the path, volunteering their time and contributing their resources, however meager, to the social justice issues of their time. Now is our time. The new recovery act is a start. But we can all do more. Through individual voluntary acts and by strengthening our national service programs, we can each be part of the change we seek, as individuals...who make up a nation...that shapes the world.