National service can heal our partisan divides

This originally appeared on The Dallas Morning News on July 13, 2021

Making national service a common American experience, whether through military or civilian service, can help us heal our partisan divides and develop new generations of leaders for our country.

Earlier this year, Congress and President Joe Biden gave AmeriCorps, the federal agency for community service and volunteerism, a $1 billion injection. This was the agency’s first significant expansion since it was created by President Bill Clinton in 1994 and strengthened by President George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11.

The goal was to dramatically expand AmeriCorps while increasing the living stipend and educational benefit for those who serve so that a year of national service can be accessible to all Americans.

Voluntary national service through AmeriCorps is a powerful way for Americans to help our country rebound from the pandemic while also investing in our future. National service is both cost-effective and good for the workforce. Every federal dollar invested in AmeriCorps is estimated to return more than $17 to society, program members and the government, according to a study by Voices for National Service. National service also offers an opportunity for young Americans to develop professional skills, networks and pathways to jobs.

AmeriCorps connects 270,000 volunteers each year with more than 2,000 organizations aiming to tackle some of the toughest challenges out there. It operates at the grassroots level in nearly every congressional district in the nation. AmeriCorps has increasingly been recognized by both political parties as playing a vital role in supporting community-based nonprofits. But it’s increasingly clear that AmeriCorps ― and Americans ― can do more.

We believe strongly in the power of national service, which brought us together. One of us leads Voices for National Service, a coalition of AmeriCorps organizations, and the other leads With Honor, a political organization that advances principled veteran leadership across party lines in Congress. We both represent communities that share a deep commitment to service and a belief that working together toward a common purpose unites us as Americans.

We’re also both alumni of the Presidential Leadership Scholars Program, which gave us the opportunity to learn with and from some of the nation’s most inspiring and visionary leaders, representing views across the political spectrum. That experience ignited in both of us a vision for building institutions that transcend politics or party affiliation, institutions that will help our nation forge the more perfect union envisioned by the founders of the American experiment.

It seems nearly impossible to find policies that Americans from both parties can agree on. In the month leading up to the 2020 election, about eight in 10 registered voters from both the Democratic and Republican parties thought that their differences with each other were “about core American values,” according to the Pew Research Center.

But AmeriCorps is an exception.

A recent poll commissioned by our organizations found that 88% of Democratic and 78% of Republican voters — overwhelming majorities of both parties — support a transformational expansion of voluntary national service.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle do, too.

Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, and Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, recruited a bipartisan group of 16 co-sponsors — eight Republicans, seven Democrats and one independent — last summer and introduced the CORPS Act to strengthen AmeriCorps. It ultimately led to the agency’s $1 billion injection, which was contained in the American Rescue Plan, signed into law in March.

However, much more must be done to ensure that socioeconomic status is not a barrier to participation in AmeriCorps.

That’s why Sens. Coons and Wicker and their colleagues reintroduced the CORPS Act in April and a bipartisan set of co-sponsors, including Democrats David Price of North Carolina and Doris Matsui from California, and Republicans Mike Waltz of Florida and Tom Cole of Oklahoma, introduced a House companion bill in June.

If we seize this moment, we can dramatically increase the ranks of those who serve and turn a year of national service into a common American experience — and help heal our nation along the way.

AnnMaura Connolly is the president of Voices for National Service and executive vice president of City Year Inc.

Rye Barcott is co-founder and chief executive of With Honor.

They wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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