TOPICS > Politics

A Culture of Service

December 31, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: Giving something back: It’s a concept that has become dramatically more popular since September 11. The idea is being debated in many ways, expanding community or national volunteer service, the Peace Corps, even a return to the military draft. President Bush is calling for an expansion of Americorps and the Seniorcorps, both government-run volunteer programs. And on Capitol Hill, two senators have proposed expanding Americorps even beyond what the President has requested, by five-fold to 250,000 volunteers a year. Is there a new culture of service in America? Should there be? We hear from four people actively engaged in this national discussion. Leslie Lenkowski is the head of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the government agency that oversees Americorps and the seniorcorps; Senator Evan Bayh, Democrat of Indiana, co-sponsored the Senate proposal; Michael Brown is the President and co-founder of City Year, a private public community service partnership for young people age 17-24; and Robin Gerber is a senior fellow at the academy of leadership at the University of Maryland. Mr. Lenkowski, there’s been always a lot of talk about volunteerism, about why it’s such a great thing. What is different now?

LESLIE LENKOWSKY, Corporation for National and Community Service: Well, I think now a lot of people who might have been on the sidelines before realize that they ought to give something back to our country. That it is important to show one’s patriotism, one’s gratitude for the blessings of liberty. And people will do that in all sorts of different ways, but a lot of people are recognizing that very important ways to help other people.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Bayh, how about that?

SEN. EVAN BAYH, (D) Indiana: Gwen, I agree. I think the tragedy of September 11 was in many ways a transforming event. Everywhere I go in Indiana and elsewhere people are asking, "what can I do?" "What can I put back?" America is a special precious place, and we need to put something back into it to make it the best it can be, so I think there’s a groundswell of patriotism, Gwen, we’re hoping to harness to make our country better not just in the short run but in the long run as well.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Brown, has that been in your experience in City Year?

MICHAEL BROWN, City Year: Yes, for the past 12 years what we’re seeing is that national service works. Young people in droves want to serve. Non-profits… We have to turn away the non-profits in schools who want our service because we don’t have enough corps members to go around in communities who want to start new programs. And there’s dramatic results. We’re seeing test scores improve where our corps members are serving in San Jose. We’re seeing the gap in after school programs solved in Boston. In Philadelphia, the school system is using corps members to engage children in community service, and at the same time we’re seeing that service can unite. Our corps is roughly 40% Caucasian and 35% African American and 10% Latino and 5% Asian, so it’s a microcosm. And on top of that all, we’re seeing that there’s a new citizenship that is built through service. Our alumni, our information is showing, are voting at twice the rate of their peers across the country.

GWEN IFILL: Robin Gerber, so how do we harness this kind of energy, this kind of excitement, if it indeed exists the way everyone says it does?

ROBIN GERBER, University of Maryland: Well, I think clearly it does exist. And it’s really great to hear what Michael Brown has to say about the results of service and what it does for young people. I think the way we harness it is to move from a voluntary to a mandatory system of national service. We have, as the other speakers have said, a tremendous amount of patriotic capital out there right now. That’s what our leaders can use. That’s what leaders like Senator Bayh and Senator McCain and President Bush can use to say, "let’s take the step. Why are we stopping at inviting people to serve? Let’s tell young people it’s time to serve. This is what it means to be an American."

GWEN IFILL: When you say mandatory, what do you mean by that? A lot of people… Americans might recoil at the notion of being forced to do something.

ROBIN GERBER: Well, they might. It’s true, but it’s just what I said. I think we should have a national service draft. So, let’s say, 18-24-year-olds would be required to spend a year doing some of the things that Michael has talked about and les talked about, and in this way they will increase their citizenship. We have a crisis, Gwen. We have a crisis in democracy, and I think we need a response that’s proportionate to that crisis.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Lenkowski, is that something the President will support — a mandatory form of national service?

LESLIE LENKOWSKY: I think we’re certainly willing to look at all things, but Senator McCain put it well when he said that we had this debate in the 1970s. The country decided to move forward with an all-volunteer system in the army, and he saw no reason to reopen that. In fact, if we had the kind of agreement to bring into play a mandatory system, we wouldn’t need it. It’s exactly that outpouring of patriotism after September 11 that makes it far more likely that people are going to step forward voluntarily than they would have before September 11.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Bayh, what do you think? Is mandatory government service necessary?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: Oh, Gwen, there are some appealing aspects about it. Number one, it recognizes the fact that the cost of freedom is, in fact, not free, that it requires each and every one of us to put something back into this country. The other thing that’s attractive is that it would have a universal experience that everyone could look to that would help bond Americans who come from a variety of religious ethnic and racial backgrounds. But ultimately, I come down on a side that it’s probably a bridge too far. We are in a free country, and we want Americans to serve their country not because they have to, but because they want to. And that’s what our legislation seeks to accomplish by expanding Americorps dramatically so that every four years one million Americans will have the opportunity to serve. It’s not mandatory, but we’re getting it up to the kind of scope and scale where it will make a real difference for America.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Brown, what do you think about that? Based on your experience working hands-on in a program like this, do you think that the young people who are drawn to City Year would be as drawn, or would be affected in any way by the idea that it was a service that they had to perform?

MICHAEL BROWN: Well, I do think that post-September 11 we need to be challenged as a nation in all kinds of ways, but first and foremost, we need to have our civic imagination challenged. I think Robin is putting that on the table by talking about mandatory. And there are so many things that are appealing about it, but just from a practical perspective, there’s 50,000 young people in Americorps today. There’s 25 million Americans between the ages of 18-24, and to get to the kind of a system where we even have the opportunities, the spots, if you will, for them to serve, we have to build that over time. And so perhaps one day the more commonly asked question of an 18-year-old could be, "where are you going to do your service year?" But we’d have to build towards it. I also agree with the Senator, the first thing you should do is inspire young people to ask. So many people that first served in the 60s in the Peace Corps when they were asked why they did it, it was because they said, "somebody asked." And we should be out there inspiring and then providing the opportunities. We need to get Americorps up to a million people at least every four years and eventually every year.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Brown, I’m intrigued by your term "sparking the civic imagination" and trying to expand these numbers. What, besides requiring it, assuming that the draft is something that the Bush administration would not support, what besides requiring public service could you do to spark that civic imagination?

MICHAEL BROWN: Well, we need to reinvent American citizenship for the 21st century and ask ourselves the big question: What does it mean to be an American citizen in the 21st century in the post-September 11 world? I think it could mean a spectrum of service where there could be requirements for service as civic education throughout elementary, middle school and high school years. There could be a summer of service potentially required if it also brought school or educational scholarships during one of the high school years. We could transform work-study in colleges to serve study as Senator McCain and Bayh are saying and not just work but serve through the college years. We could also have Seniorcorps is also being proposed. So the whole nation could be mobilized for service for any age of life and for all walks of life.

GWEN IFILL: Robin Gerber, who manages an effort like this, an effort to kind of mobilize an entire nation of disparate youth with different agendas, different ambitions, but who want to do something?

ROBIN GERBER: Well, I think Les would manage it and I’m sure he’d do a fine job.

GWEN IFILL: You think government is the way?

ROBIN GERBER: Yes, I believe government is the way. You know, this isn’t a new idea. In 1940, when we first debated the civilian draft, in the summer of 1940, Eleanor Roosevelt stepped forward and said, "Why are we just drafting young men? We should draft everyone and not just for military service, but for service in this country because our democracy is in as much danger from being too weak as we are from overseas."

GWEN IFILL: Is government the solution?

LESLIE LENKOWSKY: Well, I appreciate the confidence robin has in us and we’ll certainly do our best to justify it. We’re delighted with our programs, Americorps, Seniorcorps and our school-based program, programs in learn and serve America. But this is a wonderful country for voluntary groups. They are all over the country. There are lots of other places and ways by which people can serve besides Americorps, Seniorcorps and even City Year. Those are all great ways to do it, but there are other ways as well. I think what’s important is that we don’t fixate on the various ways of serving, but really keep our focus on the expectation over the course of their lifetimes all Americans should be expected to give something back to their country in many ways, many times as related to their position in life.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Bayh, the memories of September 11 are still fresh in the minds of so many people and that is reflected in the numbers of people who respond to polls by saying they want to serve. But what happens if this begins to fade? How do you keep this energy alive?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: Gwen, I think we have an opportunity for this to be a transforming moment as the other panelists have indicated – and not just in the short-run, but in the long-run, and out of ashes of that tragedy could come a whole new civic renewal for our country. There are going to be needs that are related to the government– homeland defense– but there are other things involving education, health care for senior citizens, a whole variety of ways. And I think the ultimate answer to your question is the inspirational factor. To appeal to the imagination of all Americans, young and old, regardless of age, that America is special and precious, that it needs to be protected and improved and that’s going to take each and every one of us.

GWEN IFILL: And Senator, what besides these government… You hinted that there may be other things besides just government work that the volunteers could be doing. What else?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: Well, I think we can pursue both the government and the private side. A part of the legislation that Senator McCain and I had advanced was included in the original Americorps legislation championed by President Clinton is a matching grant so that charities, philanthropic organizations, individuals who are willing to step forward on the private sector side to provide substantial additional resources for volunteerism will have a match from the federal government. We’ve included $100 million for that to try and leverage private sector support for volunteerism as well.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Brown, when we talk about volunteerism, we’re talking almost exclusively about young people, is this something that should be focused on people just older as well, old people, young people, everyone?

MICHAEL BROWN: It can be a complete spectrum from every stage of life and I think what is particularly important about young people is they can give a year full-time, and what we’re seeing is they can be the catalyst that helps to develop the programs and lead other people into service. So they can lead elementary children into service and they can structure the senior volunteer programs as well. They are sort of the catalyst for the entire movement. That’s why it’s critical to get the entire Americorps program up to scale as soon as possible.

GWEN IFILL: Robin Gerber, let’s talk about leadership. How do you lead such a broad effort, assuming for a moment that the government has Americorps and Seniorcorps in hand, kind of the more amorphous idea of leadership. How do you do that?

ROBIN GERBER: Well, I think it’s… It’s not amorphous, it’s very solid, it’s very concrete. With leaders like Senator McCain and Senator Bayh and the President, who really believes in this, it really is just a matter of them taking bold leadership.

GWEN IFILL: Is that happening right now?

ROBIN GERBER: Well, I think it isn’t. I think that they have done very well. I think expanding Americorps is a great thing to do, but why not take that next step? I still say that it’s not for people who would volunteer; I understand there are… We can see tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people ready to volunteer, but again to go back to Eleanor Roosevelt, she said it’s not the ones who will volunteer that we’re worried about, it’s the ones who won’t and they are the ones we must be sure are invested in our democracy.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Lenkowski, does the President have more moral and political capital that he could be expending on this?

LESLIE LENKOWSKY: Well, I certainly have and will continue to. In his inaugural address the President called on Americans to become a nation of citizens, not spectators. So even way before September 11 the President was using his moral and political capital to encourage Americans to be better citizens. But again, it’s not just the government that has to do this. All of us have to do this. Parents have to take their children and get them involved in giving and volunteering. Teachers have to develop classroom projects that entitle active learning where students not only sit in the classroom but do things in their communities; religious leaders have to continue to develop all their kinds of programs in which they are using congregations, the helpers and healers, to work with others.

GWEN IFILL: Do you tell people that they should do this because it is their duty to sacrifice?

LESLIE LENKOWSKY: It is not just their duty, it’s what makes us a better society. That’s what is particularly important now after September 11 because one of the things that terrorism thrives on is that it destroys trust, it makes us distrust even the very air we breathe. But when people work together voluntarily in all sorts of groups, they are building trust, they are restoring the kind of confidence we have in each confidence we have in each other make us a stronger healthier society.

GWEN IFILL: Senator, is this about sacrifice?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: In part, Robin, I think it’s about redefining in some ways what our own self-interest is. It goes beyond the narrow definition for each and every one of us of how much money we have in the bank and how many material assets we have. It goes to the community and the nation at large so perhaps some sacrifice, but it’s enlightened sacrifice in a sense that it will ultimately help the society of which we’re all members, and of course, that enriches in very important ways each and every one of us.

GWEN IFILL: And the same question to you, Michael Brown.

MICHAEL BROWN: I think people want to believe in something larger than themselves. They want to be connected to something greater than just getting up in the morning and making a living or thinking about their education and they want to be called by their country and by their fellow citizens to service. It’s an extraordinary thing. The good news that I have to share is I get to work with young people between the ages of 17 and 24 every day. And they’re inspired by the ability to dive in and it’s infectious. The other thing I’m seeing is that once the government does put resources to work, the private sector also responds. The Timberland Company is outfitting every single corps member across the country in City Year. Compaq has put a computer on every desk. Sysco has provided the routers to the Internet. So that’s the kind of national service program we should have; one that is truly a public/private partnership where everybody is putting something in.

GWEN IFILL: Robin Gerber, sacrifice or opportunity?

ROBIN GERBER: Yes, well, some people will see it as a sacrifice, but I think we all know that those who serve find that in the end they get much more than what they give.

GWEN IFILL: Okay. Thank you all very much.