Editorial: A call to service

Jan. 20, 2009 – Inauguration Day – will mark the 48th anniversary of some of the most famous words in inaugural history as uttered by President John F. Kennedy: “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Nearly a half-century later, Kennedy’s words still resonate. In fact, it is time that we make public service an integral part of citizenship.

In August 2007, Time magazine’s Richard Stengel had a marvelous article headlined “A time to serve.” It was part of a larger package of stories that made the case for a national service. In his introductory piece, Stengel noted that there are essentially two acts of democratic citizenship: voting and paying taxes. And he said that the last time people were asked to give back to their country was when the draft ended in 1973.

Certainly few people are suggesting a return to the draft, but there are so many national priorities, we believe it is time to revive the call for mandatory public service.

Last year’s Time story notes that although polls show that people are increasingly frustrated with their government, volunteerism and civic participation are near all-time highs. And young people in particular — young feds and others — are passionate about making a difference in the world. They feel that the political system is broken, so they are trying to bring about change through their own actions.

After the 2001 terrorist attacks, people were ready to be called into action. They were yearning to do something. That moment in time was lost, but we believe there is still a desire to give back and, we believe, a new administration can tap into people’s yearning to be asked to help and to sacrifice for the greater good.

Of course, there would be a tendency to build a bureaucracy around such a program. We think that is unnecessary. There is an existing infrastructure that could be expanded. For example, the Corporation for National and Community Service is a public/private partnership created in 1993 to engage people in national service. And there are programs such as AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps. There could be an Education Corps, a MassTransit Corps, and even an IT Corps.

We all know there is a need. We believe that the new administration can tap into Kennedy’s words of a half-century ago, and it could be a benefit for the country and its citizens.

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