Service as a Solution: Three Perspectives

May 9, 2017

We asked three social sector leaders to weigh in with their thoughts on what citizen service means during this time of deep polarization in our country and around our world. Here’s what Zach Maurin of Service Year Alliance, Emily Cherniack of New Politics, and Steven Olikara of Millennial Action Project had to say.

Zach Maurin, Executive Director of Service Year Alliance
on the renewed importance of volunteer service as a solution to today’s intractable challenges:

As a country we’re increasingly diverse, yet increasingly divided and disconnected from those who are different from us. Those divides are a huge factor in many of the challenges we face today. Unfortunately as a society, we have no large institutions or shared experiences that connect people from all backgrounds in order to build civic leadership, perspective, and empathy.

Imagine if at a formative age millions of young Americans from all backgrounds – urban and rural, black and white, Christian and Muslim — spent a year serving with each other in a shared mission to tackle pressing challenges across the country.

This is not a new idea, but it’s one of renewed importance. Nor is it a quick fix. But the challenges we face are deep and require big, long-term ideas.

America needs a new 21st century institution that prepares the citizens and leaders necessary for a rapidly changing and diverse country. High school and higher education are inadequate solutions. Asking young people from all backgrounds to spend a year in service is one of the answers we need to prioritize as a nation, and to create the opportunities for them to say yes.


Emily Cherniack, Executive Director of New Politics – on national service as a pillar of preparing tomorrows leaders:

Apparently, when Thomas Jefferson read a draft of the constitution he said, “this constitution worries me because it asks so little of its citizens.  A democracy needs an engaged citizenry to thrive and survive”.  I heard Michael Brown tell that story once and it has stuck with me ever since.

I truly believe that national service is the “Jeffersonian patch” to our democracy.  Not only does national service bring people together as Zach talked about, but it also produces leaders.  And our country right now is not producing a swath of servant leaders — which is invaluable to our country and democracy.  Service is the foundational step needed to bring people together, teach leadership skills and lessons in problem solving.  We simply do not have an engaged population of people who put this country first.  Young people who cut their teeth on service, and who learn to put the community and country first, will do so the rest of their lives (h/t David Gergen).  National service is key to doing that.


Steven Olikara, Executive Director of Millennial Action Project — on investing in the next generation of policy makers:

As our politics and media become increasingly polarized and fragmented, the core leadership challenge will be our ability to build multi-party, multi-sector coalitions. This type of bridge-building puts a premium on leaders’ abilities to listen to contrasting viewpoints and find common ground, especially when it’s inconvenient.

Civic leaders across issue areas must also think more expansively about driving change by looking at a key historical pattern–young people have been at the forefront of political and social transformation since the founding of our country. Some of our greatest leaders from Dr. King to Jefferson were millennial-aged when they made their mark on the world. That’s why the Millennial Action Project is investing in the next generation of policymakers and leaders to rise above partisanship on the challenges of our future.