A National Service Act for the 21st Century

Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King's Legacy of Service by Empowering All Young Americans to Serve their Country


"Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is... above all a day of service.

- Coretta Scott King

Almost 60 years ago in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., asked the congregation at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church what he considered life's most persistent and urgent question: "what are you doing for others?"

Today, thousands of Americans will do their part to answer his question by donating their time serving others, participating in projects to improve communities and neighborhoods throughout the nation. It is fitting that we honor Dr. King's legacy with a national day of service -- and I look forward to joining my neighbors this morning in volunteering to improve a Chicago public school -- but, as a society, we can do better than one single day of service.

I consider myself lucky to have been born into a family that valued service to both one's country and one's community. Whether defending our nation as a Black Hawk pilot abroad or serving our Veterans and those in need at home, my life has been enriched by the opportunities I've had to serve my country and fellow citizens, both in and out of uniform.

And while most Americans are aware of the opportunity to serve their country in the military, far fewer know of their options when it comes to civilian national service -- but that service is also valuable; it also helps build a stronger nation.

Worse still, those who do seek to serve through AmeriCorps programs such as City Year, Habitat for Humanity and Teach for America are too often deprived of the chance to do so. These programs simply do not have adequate funding to extend volunteer opportunities to everyone who wants one. By failing to recognize the value this branch of service provides our nation or sufficiently supporting the organizations that make it possible, we have allowed our civilian national service system to become an exclusive institution that accepts Americans seeking to serve at rates comparable to an Ivy League university. This is unacceptable and we are better than that as a nation.

Imagine the impact the community organizations that President George H. W. Bush called our "thousand points of light" could have if they were finally empowered to shine brightly. Imagine what our nation could look like if all these good people -- who are generously willing to donate their time and efforts to beautify cities, improve run-down school buildings, educate our children and fill countless other unfilled roles -- were finally given the chance to do so.

In the coming weeks, I plan to introduce legislation to empower all Americans -- regardless of race, ethnicity, income or background -- to serve their country and fellow citizens, just as I have been lucky enough to do. My proposal would establish a uniquely American national service program that is both universal in scope and fully voluntary. My hope is to build a program that enables any American willing to stand up and give back to their country to do so.

I know from personal experience that engaging with your community and helping others helps foster a sense of shared sacrifice and -- at a time when our politics seem more focused on tearing us apart than bringing us together -- that shared sacrifice will help us rekindle the national unity that has made us the strongest nation in the world.

We should feel a similar sense of national pride for those willing to volunteer their time that we feel for those willing to risk life and limb, and we should encourage citizens to serve not just in the military but also in our cities and neighborhoods.

The AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps team that recently deployed to Flint, Michigan to help address that community's dangerous water emergency is a real world example of how those committed to national service can be a force for good in our communities and affect real change in American lives.

My 21st Century American Service Act builds on the existing infrastructure built by long-time champions of national service President Bill Clinton and former Senator Edward Kennedy to remove limitations that lead to so many Americans being turned away and ensure that all young Americans have the chance to give back. By dramatically lowering the barriers to participating in national service and expanding the network of quality volunteer opportunities, our nation can address important national priorities and promote a sense of shared purpose among the citizenry, at a time when less than one percent of Americans are serving in uniform.

Those who put their lives on the line overseas are undoubtedly American heroes, but it's time for us to remember that those who serve in civilian life also embody the American spirit and are worthy of our praise as well. So let's treat them like the heroes they are and finally give them the chance they deserve to prove it. With my new legislation, let's take a step toward building a new national service program for the 21st century.