A Service Year for the Nation's Young People Would Hasten King's Vision for America

When Martin Luther King, Jr. Day approaches each year, I find myself moved, like so many others, by the widely shared speeches, insights and sermons that were at the heart of all that King accomplished, inspired and stood for -- his powerful commitment to social justice, his resonant vision of racial reconciliation, his insistence that America live up to its founding ideals and fundamentally address the twin scourges of racial discrimination and urban poverty.

Several of my favorite King quotes, taken together, speak powerfully to an idea that I believe can help advance King's vision for America.

That idea is large-scale, voluntary national service -- the idea that the country should call on all Americans, when they are young, to give a year or more of service to their community and country -- as a civic rite of passage.

It is an idea I have believed in deeply for many years: since I co-founded City Year 26 years ago, I have witnessed the tremendous impact that national service can have -- both upon those serving and upon the people and communities who are served.

Although Dr. King, as far as I know, never spoke directly on the subject of national service, here's how instituting a volunteer service year for young Americans could advance his stirring vision for America.

"Life's most persistent and urgent question is: 'What are you doing for others?'"

If it became commonplace for a young adult to give a year of service, the nation would provide an institutional framework for embedding life's most persistent and urgent question into what it means to be a young American, as young people would be routinely asked, "Where will YOU do your service year?"

"Everybody can be great because everybody can serve."

Dr. King understood that there is tremendous power in the opportunity to serve others. Service makes ordinary citizens extraordinary. I have seen, time and again, that when people serve, it is almost as if a super hero is released from inside of them. Through service, we gain confidence, courage and meaning. Service turns on our justice nerve. It activates our citizenship. It gives us an enormous ability to connect with others and bring about change. A service year for all Americans could help turn each generation into the next "greatest generation."

"The Beloved Community"

Among Dr. King's most compelling visions is that of a Beloved Community: a community in which people of different backgrounds recognize that we are all interconnected and that our individual well-being is inextricably linked to the well-being of others. National service can generate a common experience among all Americans to help build that Beloved Community.

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny."

The garment of our national destiny is fraying under the weight of the deeply troubling deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island, and the loss of civic trust and understanding. Weaving together the altruistic impulses of Americans from diverse walks of life, a shared service year can help us repair that garment and fuel Americans' empathy for their fellow citizens.

"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

A service year for young Americans can help bend that arc faster by exposing Americans of all backgrounds to the needs of the nation -- and to each other -- and by helping to address seemingly intractable problems.

Take education, for example. With 51% of all public school students now living in poverty and one quarter to one third of all Hispanic and African American students dropping out of high school, thousands of young adults in service can help students and schools succeed. Thousands more can dedicate their service year to improving public health, providing disaster relief, promoting energy conservation and protecting the environment.

America has a strong tradition of service, and today tens of thousands of AmeriCorps, VISTA and Peace Corps members serve the nation, including 2,800 City Year AmeriCorps Members who are serving every day as full-time tutors, mentors and role models in high-need urban schools nationwide.

But demand for service positions far exceeds the number available -- close to 600,000 AmeriCorps applications were submitted for just 80,000 slots in 2011. And that number would surely climb if our society made a service year a common expectation and opportunity for the nation's young adults.

Just as more than two million Americans serve in the armed services as active duty and reserve personnel, we need legions of young Americans committing to a tour of national civilian service.

That is what General Stanley McChrystal, someone who has dedicated his life to service to his country, is working to accomplish. While commanding American troops from diverse backgrounds in Afghanistan, General McChrystal became convinced of the potential for national service to unite the country. He now chairs The Franklin Project, which launched with the goal of inspiring the creation of "one million civilian service opportunities every year for Americans between the ages of 18 and 28 to get outside their comfort zones while serving side-by-side with people from different backgrounds." The Franklin Project Leadership Council, on which I serve, includes more than 75 leaders who are committed to bring about this dramatic expansion of national civilian service.

A service year for all is, I believe, one of the surest ways for America to hasten the realization of Dr. King's compelling vision for America.