A nation of doers needs to do more

Posted: December 03, 2004

As 500 leaders gather for the National Conference on Citizenship, which starts today in Washington, it is time to reassess how we can strengthen the civic health of our nation.

The unprecedented increase in turnout in the election among Americans of all ages was another hopeful sign that we are shifting from a nation of spectators to a nation of citizens. Yet that same election has left national division that could thwart these promising civic developments. We must do more if we are to become a unified nation of doers, givers and joiners.

After 9/11, President Bush asked every American to give two years in service to the country and created the USA Freedom Corps. In terms of numbers of Americans enlisted and the public investment made, the Freedom Corps may be one of the most significant civic engagement initiatives since the Civilian Conservation Corps of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The early results are quite promising. Peace Corps volunteers are at their highest levels in 28 years; AmeriCorps is now growing from 50,000 to 75,000 members; and a new Citizen Corps is providing an outlet for hundreds of thousands of citizens who want to help protect the homeland.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in December 2003 that the number of Americans who regularly volunteered through a school, house of worship, or other organization grew from 59 million in the year after September 2001 to 63 million in the following year. This is a significant increase, given the high baseline of volunteering created in the aftermath of 9/11. How do we best sustain it?

Public investments in service matter. With a leverage ratio of 12 volunteers to every one AmeriCorps worker, more than 1 million Americans could be enlisted every year to read to illiterate children, build low-income homes, mentor the disadvantaged, clean up our rivers and parks, and feed the hungry. For this to happen, AmeriCorps would need to grow to 100,000 members. It should be sustained there.

Congress should double the Peace Corps to 15,000 volunteers, and ramp up the new Volunteers for Prosperity to deploy tens of thousands of skilled American professionals to countries most in need. Together, these two initiatives would realize John F. Kennedy's dream.

Citizen Corps should be given more standing and resources in the Department of Homeland Security and grow from 1,450 communities representing 57 percent of the population to every community in all of the country.

A culture of citizenship also depends on changes in the institutions we occupy - workplaces, schools, houses of worship, and local institutions. More than 400 volunteer centers should receive a small federal investment, locally matched, to recruit thousands of additional volunteers to meet urgent community needs. Local chambers of commerce should recruit businesses to change policies to regularly enlist employees into service. Schools should make community service and civic engagement a part of their missions and a criterion for graduation. Houses of worship should ask parishioners to pledge time, in addition to money, and match them with local nonprofits.

Volunteering to help others is not enough. Citizenship means becoming involved in common deliberation about our shared concerns - and our divisions as well. Citizenship means shared sacrifice, including an equal share of the financial burdens of the country in a time of war. It means shared responsibility for a more civil dialogue, a shared respect for minority rights, as well as majority rule.

We need a forum to train young leaders about our founding principles, brief them on our most urgent problems and promising policies, encourage them to disagree about principles in a way that fosters mutual learning, and give them specific ways to reach across the aisle to find common ground. The Aspen Institute's new Rodel Fellows program is a good start.

The benefits of a culture of shared citizenship are immense. With some extra effort, we could foster a kind of civic renewal that comes only once or twice a century. That is something that could unite us all.

Robert D. Putnam is Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University.

John M. Bridgeland is former director of USA Freedom Corps and now CEO of Civic Enterprises.

Contact Robert D. Putnam at rputnam@fas.harvard.edu. Contact John M. Bridgeland at bridge@civicenterprises.net.

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