National Service: The Ultimate Shovel-Ready Infrastructure Project

I'm in Aspen for the inaugural 21st Century National Service Summit, sponsored by The Franklin Project, a new venture of the Aspen Institute. The goal is to make universal national service a new American rite of passage. It is, of course, an idea at the heart of the founding of the country itself, connected to the very "pursuit of happiness" in our Declaration of Independence.
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Hello from 8,000 feet. I'm in Aspen, where the conversation, thankfully, is much thicker than the air. I'm here for the inaugural 21st Century National Service Summit, sponsored by the Franklin Project, a new venture of the Aspen Institute. For two days, speakers will be discussing all the ways in which we can scale the idea of giving back into a robust program of national service. The goal is to make universal national service a new American rite of passage by creating one million national service positions for those aged 18 to 28.

Tomorrow I'll be moderating a panel that includes Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America and co-founder of Teach for All; Barbara Bush, co-founder of Global Health Corps; George Khaldun, chief administrative officer at the Harlem Children's Zone; Dirk Kempthorne, former governor of Idaho and Secretary of the Interior; Michèle Flournoy, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy; and Stephanie Simmons, who as a member of FoodCorps is helping teach children in underserved communities about the benefits of healthy food.

As the makeup of our panel -- and the rest of the summit's program -- demonstrates, national service is an idea that cuts across our stale right-left divisions and enjoys wide bipartisan support. Indeed, our panel will be followed by remarks from Joe Biden's chief of staff, Bruce Reed, and Michael Gerson, who was George W. Bush's chief speechwriter. It's not surprising that this national service movement -- like all important movements -- began outside Washington.

The Franklin Project itself was formed after General Stanley McChrystal's call at the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival for a national service program. As the organization's mission statement puts it, "We believe national service can and should become a common expectation and common opportunity for all Americans to strengthen our social fabric and solve our most pressing national challenges."

Yes, it's a big idea, but so are our challenges.

One of the co-chairs of the Franklin Project (along with General McChrystal, Alan Khazei and Walter Isaacson) is John Bridgeland, the former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President George W. Bush. Last year he wrote Heart of the Nation: Volunteering and America's Civic Spirit, and if you're going to read one book on national service, please read this.

It captures Bridge's (yes, that's his appropriate nickname) deep passion and commitment to making service part of our culture and daily practice through transcending ideologies and administrations. In his book he writes about how 9/11 awakened a new sense of national unity: "The attacks changed the mood of the nation and how we viewed our obligations to one another."

Since the 1960s, we have seen a steep decline of the civic spirit and feeling of commonality that were roused again on 9/11. Along with them, as Bridgeland puts it in his book, we began to lose some of "the connective tissue that ensures our country remains a land of opportunity for all."

But then came the incredible outpouring after all that followed 9/11 -- a yearning not just to rebuild what had physically been destroyed, but to rebuild a spirit of community and service that had been eroding for decades. And so within the Bush White House Bridgeland set about creating USA Freedom Corps, which had the ambitious goal to bring about a dramatic cultural shift that would lead to every American committing at least two years -- 4,000 hours over a lifetime -- to service. The plan got an enthusiastic response across parties -- but, as you may have noticed, we are still a long way from it becoming reality.

But this did not deter Bridge and many of the other leaders behind the Franklin Project. There is a pervasive feeling among all those at the National Service Summit that this is an idea whose time has finally come. It is, of course, a very old idea, but it's at the heart of the founding of the country itself, connected to the very "pursuit of happiness" in our Declaration of Independence.

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson expressed our right to the pursuit of happiness. But he was not simply referring to the right to pursue personal, momentary pleasure fueled by a culture of material goods. The happiness to which he was referring was the right to build a prosperous life within a strong and vibrant community. The happiness of which he wrote was the public happiness.

The Founders, writes Bridgeland, "understood that such sacrifices and work were necessary to bind the country together, as well as unleash a market of talent and compassion to address social needs and keep society functioning." So it was the act of giving back, of service, of civic engagement that literally helped build and unite this huge new experiment of a country of disparate parts and races and languages. And, correspondingly, it's the diminution of that spirit that's behind the feeling so many have that the country is coming apart, hopelessly polarized and no longer indivisible.

As Bridgeland notes, every president -- with the exception of William Henry Harrison, who gave the longest inaugural address in history and then died a month after taking office -- has recognized the importance of this "connective tissue" and made an effort to reinforce it in one way or another. FDR created the Civilian Conservation Corps, which led to three million unemployed young people working on public lands across the country, JFK launched the Peace Corps and Bill Clinton, AmeriCorps.

President Obama promised during his 2008 campaign that the call to service "will not be a call issued in one speech or one program -- this will be a central cause of my presidency."

But has it really been a "central cause?" In April of 2009, the president signed the Edward Kennedy Serve America Act, designed to expand AmeriCorps to 250,000 positions by 2017. But in fact the program was on track to fall far short of its goal of reaching 170,000 members by 2013. And this is not because of a lack of people to serve -- in 2010 and 2011, one million applicants to AmeriCorps were turned away.

So clearly, there's a hunger out there to serve. This is especially true of the Millennial generation. And it's not just because of their 11.6 percent unemployment rate (16.1 percent if you count those who have given up looking for a job), though a robust national service program would certainly help with that problem, too. "Our generation wants to push and dream for something big," Matthew Segal, co-founder of Our Time, a national advocacy group for young people, told Amanda Terkel, "and few policies make more sense than allowing idealistic young Americans to serve their country via nursing, teaching, disaster relief, park restoration, and infrastructure repair." It's about both a very necessary paycheck and a sense of purpose in life.

What the Founders didn't know is that 200 years later science would confirm their idea of the connection between happiness and giving back. Studies have shown that, as Bridgeland puts it, "It seems humans are hardwired for social cooperation and acts of civic concern. We are happiest in deep and fundamental ways when serving others."

There are dozens of such studies -- and more being written about every week -- but one that I found particularly compelling was based on the idea of time famine. That's the term researchers have given to the distracted, harried, stressed-out feeling that there's never enough time to accomplish what we want. A recent study by researchers at Yale and Harvard business schools showed that when people give away their time to others, they actually felt more "time affluent" than those who had simply spent time on themselves. "Spending time on another," the study concluded, "seemingly expanded the future."

Giving back is also one of the key elements of HuffPost's new Third Metric initiative, which aims to redefine success as being about something more than just money and power. True success includes a sense of well-being, which is dramatically enhanced when we give of ourselves to others.

Institutionalizing our desire to give back in the form of national service works on many levels, ranging from our personal sense of happiness and well-being to our collective sense of common purpose and national spirit to practical solutions to many of our current challenges. Think of it as the ultimate shovel-ready infrastructure project -- one that can literally rebuild our country from the inside out.

It's time to move beyond talk and make national service happen. It's time to finally make this big idea truly a central cause of our time.

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