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Americans of All Ages Are Ready for Citizen Service: Are Politicians Ready to Lead Them?

Resource type: News

Gara LaMarche |

This morning Senators John McCain and Barack Obama suspended their intense competition for the Presidency to visit Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, in tribute to those who lost their lives on a brilliantly sunny New York morning seven years ago today. And tonight they will signal their commitment in another area that ought to transcend our increasingly polarised politics—citizen service—by appearing at a forum at the ServiceNation Summit.

The summit will bring together 500 leaders from all sectors, and political leaders across the party and ideological spectrum, to “lay out a bold policy blueprint for addressing America’s greatest social challenges through expanded opportunities for volunteer and national service.” Hats off to Vartan Gregorian, and the Carnegie Corporation, our colleague foundation, for underwriting and taking the lead in this hugely important effort, which Gregorian co-chairs with Caroline Kennedy, Alma Powell of Atlantic grantee America’s Promise, Richard Stengel of Time magazine, and Bill Novelli of the AARP.

I’ll be taking part tomorrow in a panel on “The Wisdom of Experience: The Extraordinary Potential of Americans Over 50.” The very inclusion of this panel in a day devoted to citizen service is strong testimony to the impact that Atlantic and its grantees have had in a few short years toward changing the dominant paradigm for older adults from a deficit model of a drain on societal resources to an asset model, seeing a tremendous untapped resource that could serve the myriad needs of our communities. There are 78 million baby boomers, the vast majority of whom want to serve, in paid or unpaid work, well past what has been considered retirement age.

A 2006 poll by Hart Research showed that half of adults aged 44 to 70 say they are interested in serving in fields such as education, health care, government and nonprofits. There are many examples of innovative, socially transformative work being done by older adults. The several thousand applicants for the Purpose Prize, supported by Atlantic and the Templeton Foundation, are testaments to that—from mentoring children of incarcerated parents, to cleaning polluted waterways to promoting affordable assisted living to frailer older adults.

We have work to do to expand the options in the spectrum from pure volunteerism to paid work. Many older adults need some source of funds, so models of stipend volunteerism need to be developed—like Experience Corps, in which older adults work in schools to help students work on their reading—or possibilities for blended work and volunteerism and provision of medical coverage.

Experience Corps, which Atlantic has been proud to support, shows the way toward effective engagement by combining a focus on real challenges, meaningful work, and demonstrable outcomes for young people. A recently completed state-of-the-art evaluation of Experience Corps shows real gains for the reading and academic achievement of some of young people in some of the most hard-pressed schools in the country.

This work has strong antecedents at Atlantic. I’m proud of the role the foundation played before my time, led by Harvey Dale and Joel Fleishman, in providing critical start-up funding for some of the most prominent, effective and by now established service organisations. Our early grants to City Year—the forerunner of the AmeriCorps programme, Public Allies (for which Michelle Obama once worked), Youth Service America and Teach for America, aimed at making service easy and appealing. City Year, through which 17 to 24-year olds spend ten months working in afterschool and youth leadership programmes all across the U.S. and in South Africa, received $6.7 million over time for unglamorous but vital infrastructure support that allowed the organisation to expand and make a national case for the excellence of its services. In an evaluation that Atlantic commissioned of its work to support the building of nonprofit infrastructure and volunteerism, one observer noted: “There wouldn’t have been an AmeriCorps—at least as we know it—without City Year.”

In addition to City Year, Atlantic helped to create Impact Online, sponsors of the VolunteerMatch computer service, which pairs volunteers with local nonprofit organisations where users’ skills could be best employed. These are just a few of the many examples of Atlantic support for initiatives to mobilise the talents, passions and energies of ordinary people on behalf of the needs of all.

Atlantic’s most sustained contribution to the promotion of civic engagement has been through support for the Cornell Tradition, a scholarship programme that promoted service, self-help and a work ethic among Cornell University students. When I visited Cornell this summer I met with a small group of students participating in the Tradition, and was impressed with both the range of their activities, from tutoring to neighborhood improvement, and the passion and dedication they brought to it, qualities that experience and research has demonstrated will manifest themselves in their work and community engagement for decades to come.

It has been widely lamented that the national sense of purpose and solidarity that emerged in the days and weeks after the attacks of September 11, 2001—when third-graders from Oklahoma held bake sales to help the families of victims, and firefighters and other first-responders from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine, headed toward New York to aid in rescue and recovery efforts—could have been stoked and sustained by stronger national leadership. With the two Presidential candidates coming together toward that end—one who helped protect the country in military service and another who helped poor and low-income communities as a grassroots organiser—we have reason to hope that leadership is on the way. In our grantmaking experience at Atlantic, we’ve seen first-hand that millions of all ages are ready to follow.

Gara LaMarche

Links to organisations mentioned in this column: