Obama push for citizen service

The incoming Obama administration has spun their service effort into USAservice.org.

They are planning day-of-service events over the inauguration (which could be significant with 2-3 million Americans descending on our nation’s capital).  Their longer-term plans are less clear, but they have in the works plans to spotlight civilian service over MLK holiday weekend.

Buffy Wicks in this video explaining their efforts of “Renew America Together”, which is being launched the day before the Inauguration.

If you’re interested in this topic, read Nancy Scola (for TechPresident) on their service plans for MLK weekend.  They aspire to “reignite the American tradition of service and volunteerism and to that end the current call to action [on MLK’s birthday] is viewed as a starting point.”

This type of initiative  is one of the reasons that I’m optimistic about the role that the Obama bullypulpit may play in a revitalization of social capital in the US.  It is always critical in these “Days of Service” that it be a starting point (ultimately interesting Americans in more regular service to others) rather than an end in itself.

Former Saguaro participant Jim Wallis (of Sojourner’s), who has been on the Obama transition advisory team on civil society and faith-based organizations, notes that he is calling the MLK day speech by Obama and service-day “an altar call to take action in our own lives and families, our local communities, and in our nation on the big issues that we face. We have been exploring the possibilities of not just service but all kinds of civil action, including community organizing and advocacy on social justice issues. The president-elect will be giving a call to action on that day before he addresses the nation in his inaugural ceremony the next day.”

Jonathan Alter has a well-reasoned Newsweek piece (“Don’t Muffle the Call to Serve“) on how national service might be an inexpensive way of stimulating our economy while accomplishing a lot of the useful rebuilding we need to get done.  It echoes David Brooks’ NYT column from Dec. 9 (This Old House”).  Here are some excerpts of Alter’s column:

The day before the inauguration is the Martin Luther King holiday, and the president-elect wants it to be devoted to service. But Barack Obama knows that one Monday of good deeds—even if it becomes an annual tradition when people help each other rather than sit home watching TV—isn’t enough. Throughout the campaign, he talked about something much bigger—a new era of civic engagement, with a quarter-million young people helping pay for their education by serving their country at home and abroad.

But as Mario Cuomo is fond of pointing out, you campaign in poetry and govern in prose. This year, you transition in prose, too. That means the dreams of the Obama Generation are in danger of being deferred even before their man takes office. The economists confronting the present crisis apparently don’t have a lot of time for programs like AmeriCorps, which uses a network of local and national nonprofits to employ 75,000 mostly young Americans to teach kids to read, to run after-school programs, to build affordable housing, to clean parks and streams, among many other service projects. The brainiacs aren’t sure these do-gooders are relevant to recovery. They’re wrong about that, in more ways than one.

This is why:

…[F]or 1 percent of the stimulus, about $7 billion, Obama could create 8 percent of the 3 million new jobs he has promised. Those 250,000 new national-service slots would simultaneously fulfill his campaign pledge to young people. And with 15 years of scandal-free AmeriCorps apparatus in place, service jobs can be established with Rooseveltian speed, an important criteria for inclusion in the stimulus. At about $20,000 each, AmeriCorps jobs are also much less expensive than those in construction.

The other standard Obama has wisely applied to the package is that every dollar spent should help the country long-term. Thus the projects enumerated by Summers would rebuild infrastructure, lessen dependence on foreign oil and reduce health-care costs. But investing in human capital is every bit as critical for the future. Service develops the talents of those who perform it as well as those they help. It changes lives. And communitarian thinking is contagious. Each year, AmeriCorps’s 75,000 full-time members leverage another 1.7 million volunteers.

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