ServiceNation Brings Out McCain, Obama and New York Youth

The newly branded S-Generation was officially launched at the ServiceNation summit, an event that included both presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama as well as a long list of luminaries from both the public and private sectors. The event was specifically constructed to be nonpartisan and great efforts were made to keep it that way. In spite of the ugly turns in the recent days of presidential campaigning, both men had agreed to keep their remarks focused on the theme of service and to refrain from either promoting their candidacy or criticizing one another at the Thursday evening kick-off planned for the seventh anniversary of the 911 attacks.

So what is ServiceNation and why was it that at least some of the students on the Columbia campus where the event was held had never heard of it and didn't know who was sponsoring the event?

ServiceNation is an updated Hunger Project, except perhaps with more teeth and without the baggage of a guru for leadership. The Hunger Project was begun 30 years ago with a focus on the "me" generation, selling the concept of ending world hunger in 20 years.(*see update below) ServiceNation was drafted a few months ago with the concept of "we," uniting to solve the problems facing the country by promoting the notion of service. ServiceNation in itself is not a service group; it is a campaign that has brought together and enlisted a cross-section of politicians, CEOs, and VIPs in the world of nonprofits. The plan has far-reaching and idealistic goals: "to expand opportunities for Americans to serve our nation at every life-stage, making service a core value of American citizenship and a problem-solving force in American society."

ServiceNation is an attempt to tap into what it sees as people's yearning to be part of something "bigger," and at the same time use that energy as a resource to help solve the problems we face. So how is that different from Obama's message of change and his commitment to community service or McCain's old references to devotion to a "cause greater than" oneself? The two candidates squared off to answer questions that showed where they diverged.

There's no question that the country faces great challenges, some might say greater than any we've ever had before. And the divisiveness and bitterness felt across both sides of the aisle are hard to bridge. Can a stellar group of leaders change the tide of the troubled waters or are they, too, building a Bridge to Nowhere? Is the idea of service for all something whose time has come, even if it's not mandatory? Can we really create a 21st century CCC in which volunteer groups rebuild not just the infrastructure of a given community, but the spirit of community which is currently separated by a color war worthy of adolescents in summer camp?

These are the challenges that ServiceNation is posed to address and their answer is a repeat of Obama's mantra: Yes we can. The organization wants to capture the hearts and minds of Americans in a can-do spirit that they think will be infectious. By enlisting broad, bipartisan support across all sectors of the spectrum, they anticipate wide support and funding.

While the lion's share of those who will be targeted to serve is the 18-26 year-old demographic -- the new S-Generation -- everyone will have a role and will be encouraged to participate. Over 100 service organizations have already signed on and the list is growing. AARP is a major sponsor and the buzz about the soon-to-retire baby boomers as another core demographic illustrates the scope of talent that will be available to further the cause.

The theme seemed to play well in Friday's summit audience that was filled with either politicians or people involved in business, nonprofits or philanthropic organizations. But how did it play on the Columbia campus, where the primary demographic lies?

The campus started to fill up around the quad three hours before anyone was scheduled to speak on Thursday evening. Students were already starting to spread out yoga mats to save spots for friends on the steps of Low Library, where a jumbo screen was set up outdoors to simulcast the evening event. The invited speakers and the candidates themselves, who were being interviewed by PBS host Judy Woodruff and Richard Stengel, managing editor of Time magazine, would be in another campus building under heavy security protection.

In anticipation of the crowd and in the spirit of the theme of the event, a couple of dozen service organizations set up tables on Campus Walk. In spite of the distractions, there was some interest in what the groups had to offer and students stopped to talk to the representatives and pick up the literature. One table, sponsored by the Political Union in collaboration with the College Republicans, was hawking voter registration. The Political Union is nonpartisan and the College Republicans club simply wanted to encourage students to vote and give them the needed information. If asked, they could also get information about McCain, but on a campus that is largely behind Obama, few expressed much interest. McCain literature was not in sight. The College Republicans' representative remained unfazed by the group's minority status. "It just keeps us on our toes," she explained.

The group expected to distribute voter registration forms to approximately 200 students as part of the get-out-the-vote effort, which according to Nick Shay, a volunteer for the Political Union, is about average for a day when there are events and large crowds. Shay thought that more Columbia students were registered to vote than the national average, but we still have "a campus full of potential voters who are currently unregistered," he pointed out. Some students may want to vote absentee, depending on where they live, and "we just give them the information," he explained.

This was definitely a nonpartisan effort, in keeping with the theme of the summit. No mention was made of Barack the Vote, or the large voter drives in some areas sponsored by Democrats and other civic groups, or of what some consider Republican efforts to stymie those efforts by creating roadblocks with laws requiring state authorized photo ID; nor did anyone whisper rumors about scrubbing the voter lists or tampering with electronic voting. This was purely a way to help students make sure they are properly registered. Those who volunteer in this effort see themselves as part of the services that help promote democracy.

While the university encourages student service and many service groups operate on campus, service is not a mandatory part of the curriculum. A student from Austria explained that in his country, some kind of service is mandatory for all males over the age of 18 and he felt it was a very productive and positive way to contribute to one's country. In a truly voluntary system, there is low participation, so it doesn't work very well, he observed. Service in Austria is obligatory for nine months and the people get paid, though wages are low. "People tend to like it," he added.

Interestingly, on the Friday program, representatives of Duke, Penn, Tulane, and Bentley College (MA) each announced new initiatives in which their schools would be making service part of the curriculum. After Katrina, Tulane became the first major university to make public service a requirement and is now in a position to lead and expand their programs. Richard Broderhead, president of Duke, explained that students should know what it is to serve. "Service is an important part of who we are," he told an enthusiastic audience.

So is this what ServiceNation is advocating? Partly. Their mission is to set the tone and promote the concept, not to tell any organization what to do or how to do it. Perhaps it can be seen as an acknowledgment by the leaders of every major sector of society that our country is way off track and that unless we can get support from everyone to turn around the tanker, we may be heading for disaster. But is it feasible to expect all people to volunteer when so many students graduate from college with big loans to repay, when unemployment is at a 5-year high, when the bulk of the population, i.e., the middle class, is having a tough time deciding how to divvy up their limited resources between food, fuel, and health care?

The bipartisan legislation, the Kennedy-Hatch Serve America Act, announced Friday by Sen. Orrin Hatch, will presumably sort out some of these questions, at least as far as funding is concerned. It's a broad bill that re-funds organizations like Teach for America and the Peace Corps along with many others. Some of these groups do pay a stipend for service and encouraging their expansion seems like a positive step.

But the Columbia students were mostly oblivious to the political implications of this part of the event; many were unaware of the events that were to take place the next day. Their excitement was about having the candidates on campus and their sense of privilege at being part of it.

Because some students were uninformed about the event's sponsor, they were therefore also off base when it came to what they expected the candidates to say. "Iraq? The economy?" a few guessed. Some expected a political debate or at least some statements about the usual political topics and were surprised to learn that was not to be the case. They were there to be part of the historical event; the topic was irrelevant for them.

James Gormley started gathering with some friends by late afternoon and was looking forward to hearing what the candidates had to say. A senior majoring in political science, he expected that the crowd would be stirred up by the speeches, although he was among those who didn't know who was sponsoring the event and hadn't heard of ServiceNation. However, he was against anything that would require him to serve because, he claimed, it was unlikely to "benefit the greater good."

Overall most students seemed to think the idea of service was something they would welcome and would support anything that encouraged it and would make it easier to volunteer. No one who was asked thought service should be mandatory (nor does ServiceNation advocate mandatory service). This was confirmed, loud and clear, by students' response to the question of ROTC on campus; they booed at the mention of it when McCain said that ROTC should be allowed to recruit on campus. Although Obama concurred, he did not get the same response. The campus is decidedly Obama country.

Not all service, of course, is military. There's lots of work that needs to be done to fix the neglect of the last decades, from infrastructure to energy independence to poverty and education. Whose at "fault" for this sorry state of the union is perhaps besides the point. At least that's the message of ServiceNation. They describe themselves as a grass-roots effort, working in a nonpartisan way from the ground-up to "help solve our most persistent social challenges and crises." So are they mining the success of Obama's operation and co-opting it for a broader and "nonpartisan" purpose?

No one is against service and no one who was questioned thought it was a bad idea. But that doesn't translate into droves of students running out to volunteer tomorrow either. "Service should be our number one priority," Peter Blotnick, a grad student in continuing education argued. Although he was not familiar with ServiceNation and did not think service should be mandatory, he did think students should feel obligated to do something to help out. And maybe after all is said and done, that is just what ServiceNation is getting at - an effort at ending the 'me' generation mentality of entitlement and substituting the 'we' generation of service to others. Does that make it an effort to foster patriotism? Or a way to allocate federal money to level the playing field? It's not clear that these issues and other questions have been addressed, no less answered.

Columbia is a campus of mostly engaged students, not a place where apathy runs rampant. "Columbia is a very political campus. There's a wide range of political positions here, but for the most part students are, at the very least, interested," explained Zoe Shea, a first year law student who also did her undergraduate work at Columbia.

For some, this was one of the reasons they had chosen to come here; they wanted to immerse themselves in the hub of the activity that is quintessentially New York City. "We already have a very political scene on campus, and people who might not otherwise be that involved, get involved," said a junior whose roots are in New Jersey. She and her friends were all supporters of Obama and would be casting their votes accordingly. There was no question about voting - that was a given.

"I think Obama did a really excellent job of showing avenues that we can all contribute to service. As a daughter of a soldier I'm very impressed by his sponsorship of the GI Bill," answered Brittany Hegeland, a senior in the department of German literature and cultural history when asked about her impression of the evening. "He believes in what the GI Bill was initially founded to be. He talked about ways of giving back. He really has a good understanding of how the office should be used, and he did a good job of giving concrete examples of ways to make it work,"

Both candidates have given back to the country through service, each leading by example, although in very different contexts. Many students seemed to be in agreement with Obama on matters of policy and were open to the message of service. No one showed disrespect for the military but it was evident that the military was not the route most of these students were about to take. That did not, however, rule out other service. In fact, several expressed a desire to pursue some kind of service after graduation. Not everyone will travel that path, but if ServiceNation is a success, it will make service cool, enticing that many more young people and making good the promise of Generation-S.

For that to happen, it won't start until we have a new President. The subtext of ServiceNation speaks to the loss of respect and prestige that has taken place under the current Administration. Fully funding organizations like the Peace Corps will send out a new cadre of people to be ambassador-soldiers for peace on the ground. That too, is part of the new legislation, as well as funding for other similar efforts.

As freshman Kimberly Rubin explained, "It's a travesty that the one president that I've been most conscious for seems to be the most hated and disrespected. I want someone who Americans can be proud of whether he be Republican or Democrat, just someone who we can stand behind."

While the students yearn for a body politic to believe in, the VIP players in the summit convened at the Hilton on Friday were promoting broad goals for service organizations that would offer opportunities for people to get involved. Whether for a day of planting trees or a two-year stint teaching in a needy school here or in faraway undeveloped countries, the idea is to open up the avenues and make civic service a matter of pride.

Friday's panels, composed of politicians and CEOS, were greeted with great enthusiasm. While it was not an entrenched Washington audience, it was certainly preaching to the choir; the audience was mostly made up of politicos, members of service organizations, honored guests, and the media. There is probably wide, bipartisan support for the new Kennedy-Hatch Serve America Act, at least in theory. The real test will be if the bill makes it to the President's desk before January 20; that would show a renewed strength and a true spirit of bipartisanship. Even if it does become law, however, the big question will still be how to translate the spirit of service and transform it into a culture that becomes part of campus life all over the country while also reaching those 18-26 year-olds who don't live on a campus where it is easy to volunteer and where they are just as likely to be eligible for services as they are to serve.

*** Some readers, including representatives of The Hunger Project, interpreted my references to THP as disparaging. I understand that the current organization provides needed services to people all over the world, and as such contributes to realizing its goals.

The analogy I made between SN and THP referred to THP at its inception, when it was founded by guru Werner Erhard in 1977 as a concept, a mission if you will -- to end world hunger in 20 years. At the time, it did not give either money or services directly to people in need; it promoted the concept of ending world hunger. I noted the parallel in the historic roots of THP and SN, which is also promoting a concept.

["The vision of ServiceNation is an America in which, by 2020, 100 million citizens will volunteer time in schools, workplaces, and faith-based and community institutions each and every year (up from 61 million today), and that increasing numbers of Americans annually will commit a year of their lives to national service."]

It is the individual members of the coalition of service organizations that do the hands-on work of service, not SN; SN does not directly fund, work with, or organize services, which was true of THP until 1991.

The fact that THP has changed over the years -- it is no longer merely a concept and now operates as a full-fledged service organization that directly provides services to those in need -- does not erase its early history. Since SN is still in its first year, surely it too will evolve; how remains to be seen. I pointed out the parallel in the frameworks of SN and the original THP. In spite of the fact that SN is backed by well-respected figures in the nonprofit community (Alan Kahzei is one of the original founders) and is supported by a broad array of service organizations, foundations, nonprofits, and politicians, there is still no guarantee that in its current format it will meet its goals.

I expressed some degree of skepticism about SN because of its conceptual nature and the idea of expending a lot of energy and political capital on the concept of service in a large umbrella organization that is basically acting as PR for all service organizations in the coalition. This in no way undermines or denigrates the work of their organization and its contributions.