The case of community service

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Peter Reilly from Belfast served in the US Air Force. He is retired from a career in finance and teaches various courses at Senior College Belfast.

Whether the lens you are looking at our great country is from the left, the right or the center, it is hard not to be concerned. Today, unfortunately, we see good people fully convinced that the political philosophy of the other (if adopted) will (no doubt) destroy the country.

Yet history tells us that the country can unite and work as a force to accomplish great good.

How do we create an environment where people recognize that on both sides of today’s heated issues there are legitimate, serious and substantive views worthy of consideration? Benevolence isn’t just going to come. If we think the holy spirit is going to come down at some point and sprinkle gumbuya powder on us, we have a long wait.

When John Kennedy began his presidency, one of his first initiatives was to create the Peace Corps, Americans who made it their mission to make the world a better place. Not by embracing politics, but by helping people through concrete and local projects. Talk to everyone who has served in the Peace Corps and it shows pride in having real accomplishments and shared experiences with people totally different from themselves.

In the 1960s, when I was 20, I spent four years in the military. With hindsight, what stands out are the friends who have made themselves. We all come from different parts of the country and from different backgrounds – black, brown, white, rich and poor. I had friends from West Virginia, Tennessee, New York, Texas, Oklahoma, California, in short, everywhere. We got to know each other, we had fun together, we worked together, we complained together.

No one is arguing for a military conscription, but the gathering of diverse young people no longer occurs.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed a law creating AmeriCorps, a sort of national Peace Corps. Today, more than 270,000 Americans are members and volunteers engaged in intensive service. In return, volunteers may benefit from small financial compensation, deferral of student loans and possibly educational assistance. There is evidence that civic attitudes are strengthening and members can choose public service careers.

Maybe it’s time to build on those programs, maybe to introduce a “mandatory” community service program for our young people – about a year of service to our country or state.

Our young people are watching the older generation run the country, and they are surely not impressed. It’s time to start bringing people together, giving them the experience of giving back, of sharing challenges.

The fact remains that there are really few big places, institutions, organizations that push Americans into situations where they get to know different people from different places.

Even our representatives in Washington are in an isolated tech bubble.

We don’t need a military conscription, but we need something with a purpose that will get young and old to know and understand each other. In the late 1980s, Sam Nunn, a United States Senator from Georgia and others, introduced a proposal to tie student loan assistance to community service. A requirement for a certain type of service – military or community – in exchange for a route to higher education. It included a national agency to organize and channel this new workforce. Some people have come up with a ton of reasons (real and unreal) why we shouldn’t do this. Unfortunately, a good idea failed and died.

Perhaps now is the time for a mandatory community service program, not only for the job at hand, but perhaps more importantly for the purpose of bringing us together. Education, infrastructure, climate change, etc., the challenges are there. The game changer is not.


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