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Americans Want to Serve. Let’s Give Them More Opportunities.

There is a lot governments could do to give more people ways to serve their communities, benefiting themselves while addressing civic challenges. Public service is an antidote for disunity.

Members of California’s Climate Action Corps at work
Members of California’s Climate Action Corps at work. The program provides members with opportunities in urban greening, edible-food recovery and wildfire resiliency. (Photo: Climate Action Corps)
This past Sept. 11, in remembrance of the 9/11 tragedy, our nation recognized its 15th National Day of Service and Remembrance. The purpose of the event, as President Biden put it in a White House proclamation, was to “recommit ourselves to the spirit of unity, patriotism and service that carried our nation through in the days that followed” the attacks.

The idea of service as a remedy to heal our communities and demonstrate our patriotism should guide our efforts to unify and strengthen our bonds as a society. It's time for the leaders of our states and cities, and our country, to make creating, encouraging and rewarding service opportunities a top priority.

The Biden administration has recently taken an important step forward with the unveiling of the American Climate Corps, which in its first year aims to engage 20,000 people in projects such as deploying clean energy, restoring land and improving community disaster resilience. In 2020, California launched the country’s first state-level climate service corps to empower all Californians to take meaningful action to safeguard the climate. We need to embed efforts like this across state and local governments.

States have an important role in expanding and localizing service opportunities. These programs combine the idea of community service with broader issues and circumstances impacting the lives of residents. While every state is different, there are three key principles that should guide state action:

First, programs should tackle critical issues that are preventing residents from thriving. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom saw the need to help students avoid burdensome college debt. To address this issue, the state launched the #CaliforniansForAll College Corps, a service and volunteer program putting students on a road to debt-free college while giving back to their communities. Fellows are placed in community-based organizations working in K-12 education, climate action and food insecurity. They earn up to $10,000 for college.

Additionally, programs should help remove obstacles faced by the most vulnerable in our communities. To tackle the need for at-risk young people to earn a decent wage while obtaining valuable job experience, the state launched the #CaliforniansForAll Youth Jobs Corps. The program gives a hand up to young people who are from low-income families, are transitioning out of foster care, unemployed, out of school, or have been involved in the mental health or justice systems. Service members are placed with cities and community-based organizations where they address food insecurity, climate change and COVID-19 recovery.  They receive wraparound services, such as coaching and training, while earning wages ranging from $15.50 to $30 per hour.

Third, programs should create opportunities to harness momentum around important issues, allowing residents to channel their energies into organized activities where they can see their impact. California’s state-level Climate Action Corps, like its new federal counterpart, gives residents concerned about the impact of the climate crisis the chance to take meaningful action through activities such as urban greening, edible-food recovery and wildfire resiliency.

Recognizing investments in service as a key to strengthening our democracy, the NewDEAL Forum's Democracy Playbook, published earlier this year based on convenings of policymakers and experts across the country, recommends basic steps all states can take, such as strengthening state service commissions. Each state has a service commission working with civic programs like AmeriCorps, City Year and Teach for America. While some funding comes from the federal government, state policymakers have the opportunity to expand these programs.

In New Hampshire, for example, state Rep. Matthew Wilhelm, a NewDEAL leader, spearheaded legislation to create the state’s Service Year Workforce Commission. It will focus on expanding national service opportunities in the state and encouraging volunteers to remain in New Hampshire once their programs conclude.

There are opportunities for local government leaders to expand service opportunities as well. Hartford, Conn., Mayor Luke Bronin established the city’s Youth Service Corps in 2016. Since then, nearly 1,000 young people have participated in the yearlong part-time employment program, which focuses on building safer, stronger neighborhoods.

Giving Americans more opportunities to serve has benefits beyond addressing social needs and environmental challenges. Anyone who turns on cable news or scrolls through a social media feed will have a hard time avoiding the sense of disunity instilling fear in too much of our discourse. We don't pretend to offer a silver-bullet solution to this challenge, but we know that service, with the greater civic engagement it breeds, is an effective antidote.

While state and local leaders have many competing and important priorities, we urge them to elevate service opportunities on their agendas. For those who commit to serve and those who benefit from it, service can bring us together and make bridging differences seem possible.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
Josh Fryday, a former mayor of Novato, Calif., was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom as California’s chief service officer to lead the state’s service, volunteer and civic engagement efforts.
Debbie Cox Bultan is CEO of the NewDEAL network of 150 rising state and local officials and the NewDEAL Forum, which identifies and promotes innovative state and local pro-growth progressive policies.
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