THE BLOG
09/12/2014 09:51 am ET Updated Nov 12, 2014

National Service Now

This week, we remember both the tragedy of 9/11 and the 20th anniversary of AmeriCorps. In the aftermath of 9/11, millions of Americans stepped forward to serve their country -- some in the military, others in the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps or the new Citizen Corps for disaster response, and many in their local communities as volunteers. Census data showed that volunteer service grew dramatically for half a decade, while AmeriCorps was expanded by 50 percent and the Peace Corps grew to the highest levels in more than 30 years. Service was on the march.

Five years ago, a ServiceNation coalition worked together with Senators Orrin Hatch, Edward Kennedy, John McCain, Barbara Mikulski, Thad Cochran, Hillary Clinton and the 73 other U.S. Senators who supported the Serve America Act, and with Members in the House on a bipartisan basis. In 2009, President Barack Obama, a charismatic leader who inspired many by embracing national service as a cause of his Presidency, signed the Serve America Act into law in his first 100 days. The Act committed to grow national service positions to 250,000 a year by 2017, up from 75,000.

AmeriCorps has largely flat-lined since that time, and the Peace Corps has decreased its opportunities, after Presidents Bush 41, Clinton and Bush 43 played leading roles in sparking, launching and expanding AmeriCorps, respectively, and working to increase opportunities in the Peace Corps. Enough has been written on the causes for inertia. This is one cause that can continue to bring both parties together to enable millions of young Americans to serve, innovate, solve problems, build pathways to college credentials and career, and cultivate a lifetime of giving back to their communities.

A new national service alliance has been formed to bring leaders across the country behind the idea of a "service year" for all 18-28 year olds. Voices for National Service, ServiceNation, the National Conference on Citizenship, and the Franklin Project at The Aspen Institute are all behind this common vision and a concrete plan to provide 1 million service opportunities every year within a decade.

General Stanley McChrystal is leading the effort and has brought new energy and leaders, such as Condoleezza Rice, Madeleine Albright, Robert Gates, Arianna Huffington, Michael Gerson, Tom Brokaw, Melody Hobson, Dirk Kempthorne, military leaders, veterans, Millennials and many others behind a plan of action to fulfill the vision.

City Year is showing the power of national service through tutors and mentors in our lowest-performing schools and seeing results in keeping students on track and helping to boost high school graduation rates all across America. Teach for America, Earth Conservation Corps, Habitat for Humanity, Global Health Corps, Green City Force, Youthbuild, American Red Cross and many other nonprofits are showing how a service year can solve problems while developing leaders and engaged citizens.

A nationally representative survey of American voters shows that 80 percent of Americans support a system of national service and large majorities see the specific ways national service can make a difference for the country and for those who serve. More than three in four say that increased funding for national service would be worth it, including 60 percent of Republicans. An economic analysis by Columbia University shows that for every one dollar invested in national service, there is a return to society of nearly four dollars and a return to the taxpayer of more than two dollars.

The time for national service is now. President Obama should build on the 20th Anniversary of AmeriCorps by featuring national service in his 2015 State of the Union Address, requesting in his final two budgets sufficient funding to put AmeriCorps back on the trajectory a bipartisan Congress authorized. And the Congress needs to embrace fulfilling the Serve America Act and responding to the hundreds of thousands who want to serve our country. In particular, House Republican leaders should stop proposing to eliminate the Corporation for National and Community Service and AmeriCorps -- after twenty years and more than 900,000 participants who have contributed over 1 billion hours of service, it is clear that AmeriCorps works. The President and Congress should work together to increase the Peace Corps, given the results of a survey showing it improves how others view America, how Americans engage in the world, how we respond to globalization, and how it improves U.S. national security.

The President should continue to follow through on his memorandum instructing every Department and Agency to use existing resources to support national service opportunities and ask them to deliver on that charge, particularly the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture to fulfill the promise of 100,000 national service opportunities a year through a 21st Century Conservation Service Corps. We will continue to attract financial support from the private sector for more corps members, as we did with a $3.1 million investment from Delaware North at the Summit at Gettysburg. The President has a strong and dedicated team in Cecilia Munoz, Jonathan Greenblatt, Wendy Spencer, and Carrie Hessler-Radelet to provide the required leadership.

Congress has extraordinary leaders who believe in national service on both sides of the aisle -- Senators John McCain, Barbara Mikulski, Orrin Hatch, Thad Cochran and many others. They are active and ready to continue to help move this agenda. And there are leaders on both sides of the aisle in the House who, notwithstanding efforts to zero out national service every year, are ready to stand up to support bipartisan efforts that honor both the Republican principle of looking first to citizens and civil society to solve our toughest problems and to the Democratic principle of federal dollars leveraging citizen engagement to meet public purposes.

The time is now, as millions of young Americans stand ready to serve their country and America needs to foster more opportunities that call on our citizens to solve our problems and unite us as a people.

John Bridgeland, is CEO of Civic Enterprises, Alan Khazei is CEO of Be The Change, and Senator Harris Wofford helped to author landmark national service legislation. They are all leaders of the Franklin Project at The Aspen Institute.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute, in conjunction with both 9/11 (designated a national day of service & remembrance) and the 20th anniversary of AmeriCorps (9/12). The Franklin Project envisions a future in which a year of full-time national service -- a service year -- is a cultural expectation, a common opportunity, and a civic rite of passage for every young American. The Franklin Project is chaired by General Stanley McChrystal. To learn more about The Franklin Project, watch this video.