The question of how we create community in a time when technology has made physical location irrelevant is an important issue for us and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. We are still in the very early stages of building a new society. Right now, it seems, many younger people are being left behind. They lack money. Many lack a traditional family structure to guide them. They lack a sense of membership—and thus a sense of both personal responsibility and control—in the broader civic community in which they live. They lack influence and access. At the same time, individual citizens are losing power to larger corporations that exercise undo influence over our elected officials. What do to?
Here is a thought: Institute a mandatory Year of Service Learning for every American, to begin 30 days after they graduate high school (or on their18th birthday if they are not enrolled in high school). This would not be a military draft, although the military is one place a person might choose to do service. Other venues might include:
· Peace Corps and other federal service organizations
· State and National Parks
· Hospitals (janitorial and other duties, such as the old “candy striper” assignments)
· Schools (janitorial and other duties)
· Infrastructure (highway repair and maintenance of other state/national infrastructure)
· Retirement homes and senior home care
· Community-based volunteer organizations
· Volunteer fire departments
· Apprenticeships with key employers in the community
In every case, the individual Service Learner would be required to work at least 20 hours a week, for which they would receive hourly wages. In addition, service learners in a given community would meet together, with adult leadership, as part of a community-based service learning group to share their experiences. They would also be encouraged to take at least two technical training courses or college courses (online or at a local college) during the year. Costs for these courses would be paid as part of their compensation during the service learning year and could later be applied toward a certificate or degree.
Some costs could be funded by the organizations in which Service Learners work, including companies that offer apprenticeships. Other costs—training and education—would be paid out of federal vocational and higher education scholarship funds.
Ideally, the Service Learning Year would be seen as an extension of high school—a transitional experience for citizens as they learn about their role as adults in a community and, at the same time, begin to develop occupational and academic skills that will carry on into a more formal work or higher education experience. Key elements are to develop occupational skills, but also to give young people the experience of being part of a working community before they go on to college or other pursuits. The Obama administration has already proposed that the first year of community college education be free to qualified students. This is a variation on that idea, but one that would be available to all young citizens as they turn 18 and that would provide, for some, a transition from school to work; for others, it would be an introduction to career options that they can move on to develop through higher education; and, for everyone, it would provide an introduction to adult membership in the community.