Independence Day is a time to celebrate our great country, from our freedoms, liberties and diversity to our innovative spirit. It’s also a time to honor giants of the past who helped steer our nation through the good times and the challenging ones.
From George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., Ronald Reagan and others, each played a role in advancing the promise of America.
July 4th is more than that. It’s an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with our connection to the country’s values and principles, to re-energize ourselves toward thoughts of the common good rather than individual needs, and to ask how each of us will contribute.
Last week, I joined Gen. Stanley McChrystal and 250 leaders at the Aspen Institute for a summit on the Franklin Project, an initiative that calls for 1 million people ages 18 to 28 to serve each year in the Armed Forces or AmeriCorps or with nonprofit organizations. This renewed call to service will build upon the strong foundation of AmeriCorps, which has engaged more than 820,000 Americans in national service over the past two decades.
This proposal comes at a time our country has fallen victim to a period of hyper-partisanship. We seem to have lost sight of the importance, indeed the benefit, of engaging in respectful, civic-minded dialogue with those with whom we disagree. We should not fear engaging out of our comfort zone. It can open one’s eyes and expand one’s perspective. Americans are craving a stop to vitriolic rhetoric that too often is a substitute for meaningful debate.
National service can help us get beyond the partisan politics of today. It can help build a foundation for tomorrow by bringing people together from many different walks of life and backgrounds to join in common purpose.
Our soldiers in battle don’t ask their fellow servicemen and women if they are Democrats or Republicans. The 3,600 AmeriCorps members who assisted with disaster relief efforts after Hurricane Sandy didn’t ask the victims of the storm who they voted for in previous elections. Teach For America teachers working in at-risk schools don’t choose students based on the candidates their mothers or fathers support. Helping one’s neighbor and giving back to one’s community is part of the ethos of what it is to be an American.
Let us bring about a time when, as Gen. McChrystal envisions, “People will meet, and they’ll ask each other, ‘Where did you serve?’”
As we celebrate July 4th, we have much to be grateful for, but we should also strive to restore and enhance a sense of citizenship and fellow feeling among Americans — for that’s what has made our country so remarkable.
Eric J. Tanenblatt is a senior managing director at McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP and vice chair of the board for the Corporation for National and Community Service, the agency that oversees AmeriCorps.