National Service Symposium: Innovations in Citizenship

By: Frances McGinley, 2017-2018 Work first Fellow


On June 28th, Nationswell, a digital media company focused on social good, and the Service Year Alliance hosted a symposium in San Francisco. The event brought together leaders in the technology, business, and social service sectors to discuss how a universal voluntary paid service year could build bridges between a divided country and transform a generation into civically engaged and community conscious leaders. Guests included representatives from Google, Educate Tomorrow, Starbucks, LinkedIn, Americorps, Airbnb, Civic Assets, and more.


Today, there are approximately 65,000 paid service year opportunities in the United States. Service Year Alliance has bold plans to increase that number to 100,000 in the next three years and ultimately to over 1,000,000. What Service Year Alliance is proposing is universal voluntary national service that young people are expected to complete before they enter the workforce. They hope this service will not be seen as an obligatory requirement, but an exciting opportunity to give back, develop skills, and discover how you as an individual can contribute to society.


The most well-known service years are programs like Teach for America, Peace Corps, and Americorps, but there are hundreds of other opportunities and more being developed every day. A participant could spend a year as a health advocate in a rural town, an organizer for a grassroots political campaign, or as a volunteer planting community gardens in urban cities. The options are so extensive that anyone can find a service year that they are interested in and the Service Year Alliance is connecting people to these opportunities through their unique online matching platform.


Service years benefit a variety of stakeholders. First, the communities and organizations who host service years have dedicated individuals volunteering a year or more of their time and energy to progressing a cause, making a city safer, educating underprivileged children, and more. This service ultimately saves nonprofits and the government money that would have otherwise been spent on hiring full-time staff.


The Service Year Alliance is framing service as not just an altruistic act, but also a strategic career decision that benefits young people both personally and professionally. Service year participants gain work and life experience, cultivate a deeper understanding of social issues, and feel the satisfaction of fulfilling a commitment to service. Beyond this, the demands of a service year make it a training ground for leaders who will develop the skills to transcend difference and unite communities together to benefit the common good.


Universal service years would also benefit the private sector by giving hiring managers access to a more qualified candidate pool. Over the course of a service year, participants develop two traits that are invaluable to any hiring manager: grit and agility. As one presenter at the event said: “the world is changing so quickly that employers aren’t even aware of the problems they are hiring employees to solve”. Employers need people who are adept problem solvers able to work in fast-paced and demanding environments. This is exactly the kind of workers service years are developing.


Many of the clients that The Work First Foundation serves would benefit from the opportunity to complete a service year. The work experience and stipend offered could be incredibly valuable to someone who has been justice involved or out of work for a long time. Additionally, clients who have been incarcerated often express a desire to give back to the communities that they have taken so much from and a service year would be a perfect vehicle for them to do that. Creating pathways for those who have been incarcerated to complete service years could develop a sense of empathy and personal responsibility that might not only reduce recidivism but transform troubled individuals into productive and engaged citizens.


Today our country is deeply divided. The political spectrum is polarized and there are no simple solutions to the problems we face as a nation. To bring Americans together we need to rethink what it means to be a citizen and what we can all do as individuals to reach shared levels of understanding. One way to do this is through public service, specifically by asking every American to commit one year or more to serving a cause or community they care about. A service expectation would benefit individuals, communities, corporations, and governments and lead many to the realization that the success of our lives is dependent on the success of the lives of everyone around us. From this place of mutual understanding, we can better utilize our collective skills and resources to heal old wounds and work together to solve our country’s toughest problems.