From young volunteers to civic leaders
This past September, more than 1,500 young adults began a challenging year of full-time service to the nation as City Year corps members; they will be working in schools in an effort to address the nation's high school-dropout crisis.
Data shows our corps members can have a positive impact on student academic achievement. Equally important, research shows that the corps members themselves will emerge from the experience more likely to vote and volunteer than their peers who did not serve. Still, we in the national-service community ask ourselves: Are we making the most of this opportunity to set these volunteers on the path to a lifetime of civic leadership?
This question has new relevance today. The 2009 Serve America Act will triple the number of participants in AmeriCorps programs from 75,000 per year to 250,000 per year; if all goes as planned, by 2017 there will be a quarter-of-a-million young people doing full-time national service programs every year. That's a lot of young people addressing critical public challenges. Are we making the most of this formative life experience?
As a leadership educator, I'm hopeful. Over the course of 20 years of guiding corps members through a challenging year of service, City Year has accumulated a rich legacy of best practices and thoughtful leadership development efforts. Inspired by our colleagues in the military, we have adapted the U.S. Army's "Be, Know, Do" leadership-development framework to address the demands of civilian service.
Our new, publicly available curriculum, The Idealist's Journey, guides our corps members through a process of reflecting on their sense of purpose and their aspirations for themselves as idealistic leaders (the "Be"). Our training is growing increasingly sophisticated and focused on helping our corps generate measurable, replicable positive changes in student academic achievement (the "Know"). And our service models are growing dramatically more rigorous and intentional (the "Do"). All this work is informed by research, input from thought leaders, and evaluation of our experiences.
While City Year and other organizations have devoted resources to this process of leadership development, I am struck by how little attention the national service context has received elsewhere. During my six years of doctoral work at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Kennedy School of Government, I never found a single course that focused on a year of service as a meaningful educational experience. And my experiences representing City Year at leadership conferences have convinced me that the leadership-development world is only just beginning to understand the transformational power of a year of full-time citizen service.
Consider the experiences of our corps members: Like a service-learning program, they work directly to right social wrongs. Like military service, they wear uniforms, work in teams and are dedicated to serving their nation--a cause much greater than themselves. Like a full-time job, they are required to show up on time and put in a full day of work. Like school, they learn about civic institutions, values and history. This multifaceted experience is a unique way of growing leaders.
It is no coincidence that 10 of the last 12 U.S. presidents served in the military. Indeed, many have suggested that their military service set them on the path that led to the White House. In Barack Obama, we have a new twist: A president whose public service roots lie in a community organizing experience he had as a young adult. To be clear, national service and community organizing are not the same thing (community organizing is actually a prohibited activity for our corps members). Yet they are similar in some important ways: Both are long term (i.e. more than a week or a summer), full-time, grass-roots, front-line civilian efforts to address pressing public problems.
Combine the powerful example of Obama's life experience with the dramatically expanded numbers of young adults enrolled in national service programs, and you begin to see the incredible potential these programs possess as pipelines for developing the next generation of influential civic leaders. It's time for those of us interested in the theory and practice of leadership development to give national service the attention it deserves.
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