How National Service Can Alleviate Polarization and Save American Democracy
Trust is the backbone of American democracy. But trust in the media, the federal government and our neighbors is hard to come by, and our democracy continues to face the growing threats of disinformation and polarization.
A new report from More in Common has found that less than 30% of Americans in the past 15 years have trusted the federal government to do what’s right for the country – compared to 80% of Americans in the 1960s. in the media and our neighbors did not fare any better.
This drop in confidence among Americans came to a head in the 2020 election and insurgency on Capitol Hill on January 6, a violent act rooted in misinformation and mistrust.
A January poll found that 67% of Americans believe President-elect Joe Biden should prioritize programs or proposals that have the capacity to bridge divisions in the country. We agree. We need to start rebuilding that trust and understanding, a sense of responsibility to our neighbors, and a future that includes all Americans – and it will take more than rhetoric on unity to succeed.
As nonprofit leaders committed to the future of American democracy, we believe we must invest in a meaningful expansion of national service to help bridge these deep divides and bind Americans of all walks of life in a common goal.
National service has a long history of fueling civic renewal in the nation. By bringing young people together for a common purpose, national service demonstrates that no matter how different we are from others, we can solve problems and work together towards common goals.
National service has the power to engage an entire generation of Americans, helping to ensure a more empathetic, inclusive and engaged future for our democracy.
Our organizations, Public Allies and Service Year Alliance, are part of the coalition that supports the Serve America Together campaign to make national service a part of growing America.
This year’s campaign poll found that 63% of Americans agree that national service programs, like AmeriCorps and Peace Corps, are a good way to help bridge divisions in the country.
This month, as part of National Conversation Week, we participated in âBridging Divides Through National Serviceâ. The virtual event hosted by Service Year Alliance focused on the need to strengthen the civic fabric of our country through national service and offered attendees the opportunity to bond during a time of declining confidence and of deep division.
Our experience of operating a national service program and evaluating dozens of national service programs across the country and their practices to better understand citizens lends itself to the same conclusions.
At Public Allies, we engage emerging leaders through an AmeriCorps program that places participants in nonprofit organizations focused on issues such as youth development, education, workforce development work, environmental issues, artistic programming and community health.
The guiding philosophy of our program is that leaders develop solutions with community members, not for them. We value the lived experience and raise the voice of those who are on the front line of our greatest challenges.
With this in mind, Public Allies has built a powerful network of over 8,000 leaders who link races, ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds and cultures.
Over the past several months, Service Year Alliance has interviewed national service programs like Public Allies to better understand how these programs engage in building ‘bridges’ – young people who build positive relationships across differences and nurture difference. civic renewal in America.
As a result of these interviews, our Years of Service and Transitions report found that 98% of national service programs agreed that their body members develop empathy during service and 91% agreed that members of their bodies discover a culture different from theirs during a year of service.
Additionally, Year of Service alumni are more likely to vote, are more comfortable interacting with people from different backgrounds, and feel more connected to their community.
We are at a turning point in American democracy. And the next generation of Americans is eager to be part of the solution to the many complex challenges facing our country. They are taking to the streets to protest racial injustice, using their voices to demand action on climate change and raising their hands to help their fellow citizens and neighbors weather the pandemic. They believe in America and are already invested in the fight for a better future for our country and the world.
By expanding national service so that every young person in America has the opportunity to serve, we have a chance to bring together people from all walks of life with shared goals and responsibilities and to begin to bridge the gaps that exist among fellow Americans.
Jenise Terrell is Vice President of Programs at Public Allies. Kristen Bennett is Director of Strategy at Service Year Alliance.