When Sen. Chris Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, addressed last week’s big conference here on national service, he recalled how exhilarated he was as a young person by President John F. Kennedy’s famous plea to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
That call led Senator Dodd to join the Peace Corps — and many other young people to devote themselves to things “larger than themselves,” he added.
“I can tell you honestly,” he told more than 700 people attending the ServiceNation Summit, “I haven’t felt that strong emotion over the last number of years as I feel it today.”
Senator Dodd’s comments reflected the spirit behind the two-day conference organized by ServiceNation, a coalition of more than 100 organizations seeking to revive the kind of dedication to public service that President Kennedy inspired in the 1960s.
One of ServiceNation’s key organizers — Alan Khazei, founder of Be the Change, a group that promotes civic engagement—called the event a “historic summit.”
Given the star power that joined in, that assessment may hold up.
Most impressively, the two major presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, each agreed to be quizzed at a major televised forum at Columbia University.
Both said they favored expanding the country’s national-service programs, which provide money to people and nonprofit groups that work to solve social problems.
The next day, First Lady Laura Bush showed up to remind the group of her husband’s efforts to promote volunteerism through programs like the USA Freedom Corps.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, unveiled major legislation he drafted with Sen. Edward Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, to more than triple participants in year-long national-service programs like AmeriCorps and to create other service programs. (Caroline Kennedy, a co-chair of the event, stood in for her uncle, who is undergoing treatment for a malignant brain tumor.)
Senator Dodd followed by unveiling two additional bills to promote community service, one to enlist high school students, the other at people age 55 and older.
Among the other high-profile people who addressed the conference:California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — scheduled to speak but unable to attend because he promised not to leave the state until its budget crisis was solved —sent a video address recounting how he was influenced by his wife’s family’s devotion to public service. (He is married to Maria Shriver, daughter of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of Special Olympics, and Sargent Shriver, the first Peace Corps director.) Sen. Hillary Clinton, Democrat of New York, discussed the bill she has co-sponsored to create a federally subsidized U.S. Public Service Academy. Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York, announced that the city was collaborating with two nonprofit groups, Children for Children and RelightNY, on a campaign to get young people to distribute environmentally friendly fluorescent light bulbs in their neighborhoods. Usher, the rhythm-and-blues singing star and the event’s youth chair, said he was working to create a “Generation S” (for “service”), while Jon Bon Jovi, the rock musician, discussed the charitable work of the Philadelphia Soul, the football team he co-owns, and its foundation. “I believe we can make volunteerism hip,” he added. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush sent video greetings.
Time magazine, a co-sponsor of the conference, published a cover article on national service to coincide with the event.
Day of Action
ServiceNation, which had been planning the New York conference for more than a year, to coincide with the seventh anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, is now focusing on September 27, which it has dubbed a “Day of Action.” Organizers across the country have planned more than 2,300 activities to highlight the coalition’s cause and get people to sign a Declaration of Service.
The organization also wants to harness interest in national service and get more people involved in civic affairs.
“We need to take the energy that’s here and say, how do we change the culture of the country?” Mr. Khazei told the crowd. He said the time is ripe because polls show that a large majority Americans think their country is on the wrong track.
Vanessa Kirsch, president of New Profit Inc., a coalition member that provides grants for innovative social programs, urged her colleagues to get the word out to people beyond their usual circles.
“We need to speak to Americans and get them to embrace this,” said Ms. Kirsch, who co-founded Public Allies, a group that trains young people for public service. She also urged supporters to devote money to the campaign and to mobilize AmeriCorps alumni.
Seeking Support From Lawmakers
Michelle Nunn, chief executive of the Points of Light Institute, one of the four groups that helped organize ServiceNation, said advocates should stress that both Democrats and Republicans support national service. “It was not very long ago the AmeriCorps was not enjoying bipartisan support,” she said. (The program, created by President Clinton in 1993, faced substantial Republican opposition in its early days.)
However, the national-service bill introduced by Senators Hatch and Kennedy would cost $5-billion over five years — a sum that might be difficult to find given vows by both Democrats and Republicans to slash the country’s enormous budget deficit.
David Gergen — a professor of public service at Harvard University who advised Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton and moderated a discussion at the conference — warned that some Republicans are reluctant to expand government’s role in national service for fear of crowding out private efforts.
Indeed, while Senator McCain said at last week’s forum that he would sign the Kennedy-Hatch bill as president, he also said, “I want to be careful about expanding when my philosophy is, Let’s not have government do things that the private sector can do.”
Dorothy Stoneman, president of YouthBuild, a leadership program for young people from needy families, said she was worried that national-service proposals will be competing with other programs included in the Congressional appropriations bill for health and human-services programs — and urged ServiceNation to coordinate with other coalitions that are seeking money for such programs.
In addition to pushing the bipartisan theme, ServiceNation is stressing that national service includes the military. Several military representatives spoke at the conference, including Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff.
Lt. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley told the participants not to forget veterans when recruiting people to do good. “They can plan, they can execute, they can mentor, they can train,” he said.