Today we celebrate the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s contributions to the world with a day of service. Increasingly, millions of Americans view his holiday as “a day on, not a day off” — an occasion to volunteer with a nonprofit, make a New Year’s commitment as a mentor, or create a dialogue around the unfulfilled legacy of King.
A part of King’s dream has been realized with the election of a transformational president and significant progress in our nation’s journey toward true equality of opportunity. Yet King’s expansive dream of economic justice and non-violence remains distant. Despite astounding technological progress, millions still go hungry, live in poverty, lack access to a quality education, suffer from war and genocide, and die from preventable diseases.
In an increasingly global world, we have the resources and technology to address these global challenges, yet we lack the will and imagination.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s announcement of the Peace Corps. We have a historic opportunity to marry the dreams of King and Kennedy and build upon the bipartisan passage of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act by passing similar legislation to provide more Americans the chance to meet needs in countries around the globe.
The Service America Act will provide millions of Americans new opportunities to address challenges within our borders on education, poverty, health and the environment. The International Service Act can unleash millions of Americans to address these challenges globally.
Kennedy said his Peace Corps would be truly serious when 100,000 Americans were serving abroad every year and more than 1 million over a decade. Today, despite bipartisan and universal heralding of the idea, only 7,671 Americans serve in the Peace Corps every year.
New hope is on the horizon, however, with the development of an International Service Act. The act would more than fulfill Kennedy’s dream by ramping up and reforming his Peace Corps; providing support to highly skilled “volunteers for prosperity,” who would work through nonprofits to tackle urgent priorities at low cost to government; and creating global service fellows who are tapped by members of Congress to serve overseas, much as talented men and women are nominated for the military service academies. Americans would serve side by side with volunteers from other nations and welcome them into the United States to serve here as well, doing more for diplomacy than diplomacy itself, leading to a more informed foreign policy, and creating a generation of lifelong public servants.
High school and college graduates would be given support to take a “bridge year” and serve abroad before they enter college or graduate school. New efforts would make study abroad the norm, not the exception, for college students. The president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, Peter McPherson, says that an international experience — through exchanges, study abroad or service — is an essential dimension of a liberal arts education today. A study shows that many business executives do not believe today’s college graduates have the global knowledge to enter the work force effectively.
Interfaith associations, such as the one established by the Center for Interfaith Action on Global Poverty and the Sultan of Sokoto and Archbishop of Abuja in Nigeria to combat malaria, will mobilize millions to fight disease and poverty.
Bold goals are being set — to double the number of Americans who volunteer abroad every year from 1 million to 2 million, supported by a volunteer generation and social innovation fund, and to more than fulfill President Kennedy’s dream of engaging at least 100,000 Americans in full-time international service each year.
Our nation’s most valuable asset — its citizens — will help tackle some of the most urgent issues of our time, such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, water for the poor, and sustainable development.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently concluded her speech on global development with a ringing call to action to marshal the talents of our nation’s best resources — its doctors, nurses, engineers, technologists, educators and others — who could help meet the tests of our times internationally and foster a new diplomacy of deeds. On this Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, let’s trumpet the call to service beyond our borders and foster a culture that causes more Americans to serve overseas and transform our world.
Michelle Nunn is CEO of the Points of Light Institute, and John Bridgeland is CEO of Civic Enterprises and former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. Both are co-convenors, with Harris Wofford, David Caprara and Steve Rosenthal, of an effort to envision an International Service Act.
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