As a Franklin Project Ambassador, I am part of a nation-wide movement that aspires to make a year of full-time national service a cultural expectation, a common opportunity, and a civic rite of passage of every young American.
"Ambassador," though, makes me sound like I'm a representative, or a salesman. I didn't join this work to be either of those things. Instead, I wanted to be an ambassador to make space for a critical and necessary question in service work, especially in my home city of Houston: what, exactly, is the point of service?
Here's the thing: As a person of color and a Filipino immigrant, I sometimes cringe when I think of "service." The first thing I envision is a white adult working in a "third world" country like the Philippines, huddling together with versions of a four-year-old me, darker-skinned and of modest means, kids who might never have the privilege of being able to travel, perform service "for others," and take selfies as proof. I think of these same tourists returning home, feeling good about themselves for helping "the less fortunate" and going about their lives having been transformed by their experiences. I think of "service," and I think of an unjust imbalance: forever changing the world views of those who serve while delivering short-term band-aids (emotional, physical or otherwise) to those who are served. Doesn't that seem twisted -- that service can impact those doing the serving more powerfully than those who are purportedly being served?
Granted, this can't be true for all forms of service. But this idea of service serving the server really happens and can far too often take center stage.
Take, for example, this language from our own website: "We are leading the effort to improve citizenship by giving every young person in America the opportunity to serve... These young people will not only do good work and solve problems, but they will also become better young Americans." As seen in these two sentences, who is at the center of our service year expansion work: those doing the service, or those who are served? What is the intended impact of the expansion? Who does it ultimately benefit? Although I specifically cited the Franklin Project here, it is hardly the only organization complicit in valuing service in this way.
I hate imagining how this plays out in Houston, now the most racially and ethnically diverse community in the United States. Since 2006, I've been working with and for students in our K-12 public school system. Despite half of our city's population identifying as white, more than 90 percent of our district's kids are not, and a full 75 percent of the district's kids come from low-income communities. When I think of the idea of "service year opportunities" for "every young American," I imagine many students never having the privilege of being able to serve their country in this way. Would they want (or be able) to choose a stipended service year opportunity if given the option of a full-time salaried job? And from their perspective, how would it feel to be urged to "do service" while their own families could possibly want their own help? I have to wonder: when we're talking about opportunities for "every young American," which young Americans are we talking about? Do they look like my students? Again, who is service ultimately serving?
I don't want to feel this way about service. I want to stop cringing, especially in Houston. For me, being an ambassador gives me a platform to point at this notion of service benefiting some more than others and say: no, it can't be just about that. If we're going to expand service opportunities, we need to ask: What is the impact of service on those who are served? For whom are we expanding service year opportunities? What is the purpose of service?
I'm excited to work with the Franklin Project to navigate these questions in Houston. In February 2016, we will convene the Houston Service Year Springboard, a day-long summit that will bring together Houstonians who experience and relate to service in different ways. More than a pitch for expanding service year opportunities, we'll consider how service -- in its many forms and with its many implications -- can strategically serve our city and its people -- all of its people. We'll ask the questions I've posed above, including "What, exactly, is the point of service in Houston?" Together, in the process of agreeing, disagreeing and finding the in-betweens of our responses, I believe we can more strongly set the groundwork for a service year expansion strategy that will create lasting change for every Houstonian, and moreover, provide a blueprint for how these conversations can progress across the nation.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Aspen Institute's Franklin Project in conjunction with Giving Tuesday. The series, which will run for the month of November, features pieces written by Franklin Project Ambassadors, local leaders who are working with community stakeholders in 25 states toward the Franklin Project's vision of making a year of national service -- a service year -- a cultural expectation, common opportunity, and civic rite of passage for every young American. For more on service year opportunities and organizations, visit https://serviceyr.org.