In the late evening of June 17, just a few blocks from where I was living at the time, something awful happened at Emanuel AME Church, one of America's oldest African Methodist Episcopal churches. Nine individuals, including a state senator, were slain during a Bible study in a clear act of hatred. The suspect later confessed to committing the shooting to ignite a race war. Much has happened since. The confederate flag was taken down and off of the statehouse grounds in Columbia. Charlestonians came together in unity to show support for the church and community. During a prayer service in Marion Square, in the heart of Charleston, churches from all denominations chimed their bells in unison as people held hands in reflection. At another event, over 10,000 people from all walks of life came together to walk across the Arthur Ravenel Bridge to promote unity and peace.
The ripple effect from the shooting also sparked a national conversation on race in America. PBS visited Charleston to film "America After Charleston" where host Gwen Ifill moderated a discussion on race to try and determine where we go from here. Discussions on race are important, and we should continue having them, but it's going to take more action to move us forward. While there is no one panacea, I am confident as to what a piece of the puzzle looks like. We should provide more service opportunities for young people.
After graduating from the University of Texas, I served with City Year, an AmeriCorps program that's focused on keeping students in school and on track to graduation. Corps members serve in schools as tutors, mentors and role models. When school was out, we worked on beautification projects, led youth development programs and joined other nonprofit organizations in serving the community. I served side by side with other young people from all backgrounds and from all over the country. I completed my service year with an appreciation for the challenges that many of my fellow Americans face every day. My service year ignited my belief that every child deserves a quality education and a healthy home environment.
With a range of world-class restaurants, a rich history, beautiful architecture, a thriving arts scene, endless outdoor opportunities paired with southern hospitality, we have a lot to be thankful for in Charleston. Though just like in communities all across this country, we have a host of challenges too -- in veterans issues, education, healthcare and conservation. Expanding service opportunities for young people is one cost-effective way to tackle these challenges. What's just as important is the impact a service year experience can have on those serving. They'll complete their service with hard skills that'll help them in the job market, they'll be more aware of issues effecting their community and they'll share a common experience with others they served with -- an experience that'll stay with them for the rest of their lives. As a Franklin Project Ambassador, I have the unique opportunity to advocate for expanded service opportunities in the Charleston area. Along with a leadership team made up of local community leaders, we're working to expand service opportunities and drive the conversation on the importance and value of service.
President Obama recently announced that he'll keep 5,500 troops in Afghanistan, delaying a troop withdrawal from that country in 2016. With under one percent of Americans serving in uniform, there is hardly a shared experience amongst Americans and most won't feel the burden of this decision. What is being asked of those not serving in uniform? While the military isn't for everyone, a young person graduating from high school or college should have the opportunity to serve their community and country in other ways. In Charleston, perhaps that means working on veterans issues, parks revitalization projects or serving as a mentor in area schools.
Just like Charleston recently showed the country and world how we can lead on issues of race in America, I think Charleston is poised to be a leader in the national service movement and in defining how it can build stronger communities. Citizenship is more than just voting and paying taxes. It's looking after your neighbor and finding ways to better your community. Because as my dad would say, "If not you, then who?". We should expand service opportunities so that the next generation of Americans will have more opportunities to serve their country, alongside others of every skin color and from all backgrounds. As our country searches for answers on how to come together, service can be a healer and a part of the solution we should all consider. Let's get to work.
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.