Martin Luther King Jr. Day Reminds Us All That Service Is What Makes America Great

01/16/2017 12:29 pm ET Updated Jan 17, 2018

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a time to reflect on a visionary leader for social justice, the progress our country has made, and the work we still have to do. It is also a "day on" that inspires service across the nation, for as Dr. King said, "Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve." This year, we have the unique opportunity to approach service with fresh eyes, and the ability to move toward making a Service Year -- in which young adults ages 18 to 28 from all backgrounds, commit to a year of full-time service -- a common expectation across our country.

A Service Year can solve pressing social issues: educating our children, reclaiming the environment, responding to natural disasters, and fighting poverty, to name a few. Service can also unite the country by bringing people together from diverse backgrounds -- rich and poor, African American, Asian, Caucasian, and Latino, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim, inner city and suburban, rural and urban.

In addition, service can help bridge the civilian military divide and instill a larger sense of civic duty. Leaders like General Stanley McChrystal, who chairs Service Year Alliance, are working towards a time when "every year, one million young Americans are engaged in a Service Year, solving important problems while transforming their own lives."

We should soon get to a day when military service and civilian service are seen as two sides of the same coin, and when veterans and civilians unite in service to our country. We envision a day when all young people seek to join the Army or AmeriCorps, the Navy or the Peace Corps, the Marines or YouthBuild, the Air Force or Teach For America, the Coast Guard or City Year. Ultimately, a Service Year should be a rite of passage, allowing every young American the opportunity to be part of a greatest generation that confronts the most pressing social issues of their day.

Service also helps to facilitate a smooth transition for veterans coming home from war, empowering them to be leaders to strengthen our civil society. Our Got Your 6 campaign, along with nonprofits like The Mission Continues, Team Rubicon, and Team RWB, are showing that civilian service by veterans both helps smooth their return home, and provides them with meaningful ways to continue to contribute to the nation. All of us benefit from their leadership.

What's more, as Green City Force and The Corps Network have shown, service is a way to engage hundreds of thousands of opportunity youth and young adults in their first job, unleashing their energy and idealism, and providing them with a pathway to greater opportunity. Service can be a passageway to the American Dream, because those who serve can receive vital skills for the workplace, and earn a post-service higher education benefit, such as the Segal Award.

A study by Teachers College, Columbia University demonstrates that service is a great investment. Every $1 invested in national service programs returns $4 to society. Service is a critical component in the overall health of our nation and economy, and leaders from other industries are beginning to take note.

For example, Service Year Alliance teamed up with technology companies, like Cisco Systems, to establish ServiceYear.org - a state-of-the-art online marketplace and resource hub - with the goal of growing full-time service year opportunities from the current 65,000 each year to 100,000 in 2019, thus improving conditions for large-scale, long-term growth. And we should challenge all companies to join Employers of National Service, an initiative that connects Service Year alumni with meaningful employment. More than 400 companies have joined the effort thus far.

The new energy and commitments around service build off a fine American tradition led by Presidents from both sides of the aisle. President Kennedy founded the Peace Corps, President Johnson created VISTA, and President Nixon laid the foundation for the Senior Corps.

President Reagan said, "Let us pledge to restore, in our time, the American spirit of voluntary service...a spirit that flows like a deep and mighty river through the history of our nation." President George H. W. Bush created the first Office of National Service and established Points of Light and The Commission on National and Community Service.

President Clinton created the Corporation for National and Community Service and founded AmeriCorps. President George W. Bush founded the USA Freedom Corps and grew both AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps. President Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act reauthorizing and expanding national service programs.

President-Elect Trump wants to "make America great again." Arguably the best way to make America great is for him to become the Service President and commit to the goal of universal voluntary national service. Imagine if one day the most commonly asked question of a young adult is, "Where are you going to do your Service Year?" Service Year is an idea whose time has come, and although the ground has been tilled and is fertile, President-Elect Trump could lead the effort to take it to scale.

If everyone did a Service Year, it would unite our country under a common cause and purpose. As Dr. King said, "We may all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now." On this day, and many more, may we unite in service and pledge to fulfill the promise of America.