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A New Citizenship for a New Century

Historians will likely say that the 21st century began on September 11, 2001. We have reached a turning point in the history not only of our country, but also of democracy and of our increasingly global community. It is time to make real a new and deeper citizenship for this new century, as the actions we take now will shape our nation and our world for decades to come.

At a time of such momentous change, we look back nostalgically 60 years and rightly revere the “Greatest Generation” for fighting a depression and a world war for freedom and democracy. Today, as we fight a war against terrorists, we must also fight against the terrible injustice we see all around us. Every night in America, 750,000 people sleep on the streets. Every day, 11.6 million children—20 percent of our kids—wake up in poverty. Worldwide, 40 million people are living with AIDS, and a quarter of the world’s population lives on no more than $1.08 a day.

Since September 11, another great generation has been growing in America. Our nation’s civic spirit has been renewed, and we must tap that spirit by creating a comprehensive system through which Americans can serve their communities, country, and world. President Bush has challenged all Americans to dedicate at least two years of their lives to service. That goal should become our north star, and we must not rest until we reach it.

To do that, we must dramatically expand the opportunities for Americans to serve full time, and we must leverage those full-time servers to inspire millions of Americans to serve part-time. Our nation’s greatest untapped resource is its 25 million young people between the ages of 18 and 25. We should enable one million of them to enter full-time civilian service each year by 2020. To do so, we must expand America’s current national service system, engaging all sectors of society. The president took several crucial first steps by creating the USA Freedom Corps, by proposing to increase AmeriCorps by 50 percent, and by doubling the Peace Corps. But more can be done.

  • Universities and employers can publicly adopt a year of service as a key criterion in admissions and hiring.

  • Universities can match AmeriCorps awards as part of their college financial aid programs.

  • The president can host an annual White House summit on the state of national and community service in America and issue an annual State of Service report.

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  • All major American business companies can give each employee a week of paid time off to do community service.

  • Congress can amend the Family and Medical Leave Act to allow all employees to take up to two weeks’ unpaid leave each year to serve.

  • Congress can set a goal of at least $1 billion a year in federal challenge grants (to be matched one-to-one with nonfederal funding) to expand model national service programs.

  • High schools can create “community service coach” positions and enable hundreds of thousands of students to do service learning.

  • Communities can provide opportunities for tens of thousands of high school students to commit a “Summer of Service,” spending summer break serving full time while earning educational awards for college.

  • Several communities can bring leading model national service programs to scale to demonstrate the transformative power of a critical mass of service opportunities.

  • AmeriCorps should permit some members to do some service abroad and allow programs to enroll people from other countries to serve here. The exchange would promote freedom and democracy worldwide.

  • A new Global Service Corps can unite young people from many different countries to serve together all over the world.

By implementing these ideas and others, we can build a system of national service that will engage each and every generation in confronting the challenges of its time. Once all Americans commit themselves to service, the Greatest Generation will become the rule rather than the exception, and our grand experiment in democracy and citizen responsibility will truly inspire the globe.

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