As we look ahead to the new school year and think about what's possible for our children, we should think big. The national debate this year will be around the Common Core Standards, which I support, but just as important is public service. Our children need to understand that we care about their ethical and moral development as well as their academic.
My hope is that this year our children will learn about the world around them in a new way - not just about geological facts and historical dates, but as a place they can step into and make an imprint by serving others. I want them to learn to see the status quo as just raw material that they themselves can make better.
That kind of change in perspective is a leap - and we need to help children make it. By nature children tend to focus on their own needs and wants, particularly since they usually need someone - an adult - to get them what they want. The idea of helping others can seem pretty irrelevant to a child, who often has a long list of unfulfilled desires, stoked daily by today's savvy marketers who spend billions to tempt them with an unending array of toys and merchandise. These days children have an incredible number of options vying for their attention, which makes it harder for them to look up and see a world that can use their help.
What we need to do as a society is provide opportunities for children to do public service. Schools, community groups, families - we all need to give children the opportunity to serve.
I have seen it happen hundreds, if not thousands of times: a child participates in some kind of project that betters someone else's lot in life and they are transformed. They get a feeling of pride from their community-service work that they never got from doing their school work. To their own surprise, they feel empowered. Their dormant sense of empathy wakes up: they realize that there are people in need around them, a realization that blinks on like a light bulb - not in their brain, but in their heart. It's a heady feeling, particularly for a population that typically feels pretty powerless.
Some children find their own path to community service; some have a parent or mentor who nudges them through the door. But the sad truth is that we as a society do not provide nearly enough opportunities for our young people to realize the life-changing experience of public service.
In my organization we have worked with hundreds of AmeriCorps volunteers over the years. Many have gotten bit by the service bug and have gone on to become valuable full-time employees with us. They are both hard-working and happy - with a deeper connection to their community and their own purpose.
This year at the Harlem Children's Zone, more than 100 AmeriCorps workers, whom we train and call Peacemakers, will serve nearly 2,500 children in traditional public elementary schools in Harlem as well as in our two K-12 Promise Academy public charter schools. Through their daily leadership, these young people teach kids a peaceful path through conflict resolution, provide critical tutoring and help low-income families get critical services. Each of our Peacemakers receives funds for their education, making their dream of a college degree that much more within their reach. There are, however, hundreds of thousands of young Americans applying to AmeriCorps who are being turned away. I've seen the power of national service directly - both on the server and those being served -- and support the goal of the Aspen Institute's Franklin Project to make a year of voluntary national service a common expectation and common opportunity for all young Americans as a new civic rite of passage.
This year, as we remember the visionary words of Martin Luther King, Jr., 50 years ago about his dream for a better America, we should also keep in mind his call to public service. "Everybody can be great," he said, "because anybody can serve."
If we only prepare our children for a life of wage-earning and not of serving their community, we are denying them an opportunity to experience their own greatness. It is time for our country to make public service a part of young people's lives just as we do with their education. Children should learn history, but they should also learn how to make history.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute to recognize the power of national service, in conjunction with the National Day of Service and Remembrance on September 11th and the 20th anniversary of the signing of the AmeriCorps legislation on September 20th. The Franklin Project is a policy program at the Aspen Institute working to create a 21st century national service system that challenges all young people to give at least one year of full-time service to their country. To see all the posts in this series, click here. To learn more about the Franklin Project, click here.
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