Getting serious about national service

I commend to your attention Richard Stengel’s cover story for TIME magazine with a plan for national service (A Time to Serve: the case for service).  I hope his article, ServeNext‘s efforts, and the efforts of other leaders help to make more universal national and community service a unifying point between Democrats and Republicans in the coming election.

My colleague Robert Putnam has written about how diversity challenges community cohesion (at least in the short-term), and I believe that large scale national service, especially if the service happens in more diverse teams, a la City Year, can be part of the answer to the challenges Putnam has identified, by building stronger ‘briding social capital’ and my creating a more capacious sense of we.

[Note: companion piece to TIME cover story about various social entrepreneurs.]


One response to “Getting serious about national service

  1. Brendan O'Connor


    This article stood out to me immediately when I walked past it in the bookstore, and I’m just finishing it up with much appreciation for the attention to such an important tool for connecting communities.

    In regard to Putnam’s idea on diversity challenging community cohesion, I am particularly interested in his thoughts on possible solutions to the problem (as I find the argument makes much sense). I have not finished reading through his Scandinavian Political Studies piece, however a section of it that is sited in the International Herald Tribune article stands out to me in terms of possible solutions. Near the end of that article, a part of the following text from Putnam’s piece is sited:

    “Tolerance for difference is but a first step. To strengthen shared identities, we need more opportunities for meaningful interaction across ethnic lines where Americans (new and old) work, learn, recreate, and live. Community centers, athletic fields, and schools were among the most efficacious
    instruments for incorporating new immigrants a century ago, and we need to reinvest in such places and activities once again, enabling us all to become comfortable with diversity.” (page 138)

    I am intrigued, and have been for some time now, with the concept of community centers in particular functioning as more deliberate conduits for community building. They certainly are capable of meeting with the concept Putnam brings up in the introduction to Better Together, of “creating networks of networks, that is, by nesting smaller groups within larger, more encompassing ones” (p.10). Similar to the small groups used within the Saddleback and All Saints churches in Better Together, it seems community centers could work in a similar fashion, but with a much broader audience (those with or without religious belief); simply having individuals come to community centers with the express purpose of connecting with others in their community could form a broad constituency of involved citizens, able to be broken down into traditional community center activities, such as adult ed. classes and recreational activities, but also into small groups to have regular meals together, to regularly volunteer together, etc. I think community centers functioning in this fashion could gradually bring diverse people groups together, and just as importantly, diverse economic groups, for the “meaningful interaction” Putnam calls for. (I also think community centers could expand their services in numerous other ways, such as planning regular community building activities and providing various social services)

    What do you think of such a concept? Does this seem to be similar to the broadened role Putnam thinks may be played within community centers? I would also be especially interested in 1. any community centers you may know of that are broadening their roles in innovative ways, specifically ways similar to what I described above; and 2. any research on the potential for broadened roles in community centers that you may know of that has been done, or is currently being done, at particular schools or other facilities.

    Please forgive the lengthy reply, however I love your blog and appreciate the chance to connect via ideas of social capital!

    With kind regards,

    Brendan O’Connor

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