Eric Tanenblatt: To Heal America, Look to National Service

AnnMaura Connolly, Eric Tanenblatt

Wednesday, July 8th, 2020

Massive demonstrations and unrest stretching from America’s biggest cities to its smallest towns, a pandemic that’s already claimed the lives of more than 130,000 and a sputtering economy that’s displaced upwards of 21 million workers: By any measure, America is in a crisis.

The country is stuck between fits of inconsolable grief and insatiable fury. Every new day brings a new dimension of trauma, more violence, more injustice, more deaths.

It’s testing the full measure of our spirit. But our history proves crisis can also enrich us. From the earliest days of the new republic to the depths of 2020, America is a tapestry of crisis and stubborn perseverance. It’s a dualism that says Americans are at their very best when things are seemingly at their worst, banded together in common cause — serving as one people and one nation under God, indivisible.

But we're not going to meet this moment by serving in the same way we've done for generations.

This crisis isn't calling for Americans to storm beaches, but asking they staff virtual schools. We don't need Americans building bombs and weapons of war to defeat this pandemic; we need them distributing food and conducting wellness checks for seniors. We don't need Americans infiltrating enemy territory to right historic and systemic injustices; we need them rebuilding our communities and faith in one another.

Just because we’re not asking Americans to don the uniform of the armed forces doesn’t mean we’re not asking — no, needing — them to come together in service.

Last week, seven Republican and seven Democratic U.S. senators introduced the CORPS Act, which would expand America's investment in national service programs to allow for the immediate, targeted deployment of tens of thousands of civilian service members in communities all across the country.

Once deployed through programs like AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, these civilian service members would address the widening achievement gap in the era of distance learning by tutoring and mentoring students and helping teachers program increasingly complex lesson plans; combat hunger in children and seniors by staffing food banks and pantries; and flatten the curve by organizing blood drives, staffing temporary isolation sites, and distributing personal protective equipment to healthcare and essential workers.

The value to society is obvious. But the economic feature of national service — providing purpose-driven work when few economic opportunities exist — is also profoundly important. Recent college graduates are entering the least-inviting jobs market since the Great Depression. National service would tap this tremendous well for the good of the country while also providing service members real-world experience and the opportunity to pay down student loan debt.

Voters overwhelmingly support the approach. A recent survey of 1,000 registered battleground voters found 70% of Republicans and 80% of all respondents support expanding federal support for national service to respond to this moment. Sixty-eight percent of respondents in the same survey said they would be more likely to reward leaders who support national service.

The United States has two options before it: allow this painful episode to be defined by the challenges that haunted us, or how we responded to them. In 50 years, will we look back at what we’ve lost, or will we reflect in pride on what we built in its place? If Congress acts on the CORPS Act, 2020 won’t simply be a year of crisis — it’ll be the year of the civilian service member.

Connolly is the president of Voices for National Service and the chief strategy officer of City Year Inc., an education nonprofit funded partly by AmeriCorps and dedicated to helping public schools. Tanenblatt is a former Republican board member of the Corporation for National & Community Service, the independent federal agency that administers AmeriCorps. He serves as the global public policy chair of the international law firm Dentons.