We Are a Service Nation

On the seventh anniversary of September 11, Senators McCain and Obama will gather in New York to discuss one of the most powerful, but frequently overlooked, pillars of our global public diplomacy efforts—service and volunteerism. For this September 11 marks the beginning of the two-day ServiceNation Summit, which will herald the potential impact of citizen service and offer a forum to discuss policy options to address some of America’s toughest challenges through service—both at home and abroad.

Senators Obama and McCain will be joined by more than 500 leaders, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Alma Powell and Caroline Kennedy among many others, who all believe in the power of service and volunteerism to inspire our citizens, help our neighbors and build a stronger global society.

As we gather with these leaders in New York and engage America’s grassroots volunteers and activists in expanded service efforts, we must also ask Congress to recognize the value of volunteerism by enhancing opportunities for Americans to engage in global service. For as Peace Corps members, diplomats, corporate volunteers, faith-based groups and the growing ranks of university service learning volunteers can tell you, it is through our individual actions abroad that we often do the most good—changing action by action the way someone sees the United States and leaving a legacy of good will together with enhanced local civic capacity.

We have seen this time and time again through our work together in the Brookings Institution’s Initiative on International Volunteering and Service, through which we work with more than 150 groups, including corporations, non-governmental organizations, leading universities and government agencies who work to encourage more international volunteering and reciprocal exchanges with Americans and their foreign counterparts from all walks of life.

As part of that initiative, we have recommended that our policymakers offer Americans more opportunities for service, including the creation of Global Service Fellowships (as proposed by Senators Feingold and Coleman in S. 2609), expanding the Peace Corps, fostering multilateral exchanges in concert with UN volunteers and other efforts. These policy actions would link the efforts of American volunteers in a variety of service projects to a broader national effort aimed at enhancing international and cross-cultural understanding while improving lives through service.

The momentum and desire for this type of citizen effort, supported by government, is clear as ServiceNation commences and Americans choose service to others as a way to remember September 11. It is critical to capture this momentum and engagement as a new administration and Congress commence to ensure America presents its best face to the world, which is frequently the face of the volunteer.