As Iowa goes, so goes the nation: volunteer

John Bridgeland
John Bridgeland

By John Bridgeland


Iowa is known for its innovative caucuses that gather citizens in homes, schools, churches and public libraries to select delegates who ultimately help elect our President.

So it was no surprise when, this week, Iowa took another important step to ignite citizens to participate in their democracy.

Gov. Terry Branstad, who has made national and community service a priority since he first took office 16 years ago, issued a groundbreaking executive order instructing departments and agencies to expand national service opportunities across the state.

One can imagine the state Department of Education mobilizing tutors and mentors to the lowest-performing schools, the Natural Resources Department supporting efforts to clean up rivers

and parks, and the justice

departments attracting young lawyers in a legal services corps to help the vulnerable.

The Republican governor paves the way for more bipartisan support for national service and for other governors to mobilize citizen talent at a time when states and the country need them most.

Branstad calls national service a “no brainer” and believes ramping up such opportunities would strengthen the economy, as well as enhance the effectiveness of essential public services.

The governor’s initiative should certainly resonate. Iowa has service in its culture, with one of the highest volunteering rates in the country and 1,200 national service members and 6,200 senior corps volunteers.

Add the expanded national service force that Branstad envisions to the nearly 800,000 volunteers who contributed $1.4 billion in service to the state in 2012 and you have a civic powerhouse.

In addition to positions through state agencies that leverage private sector support, the governor’s action also encourages the use of technology to facilitate colleges, universities and non-profit organizations expanding national service opportunities that people can easily find.

Colleges such as Drake University are poised to make such efforts innovative and real.

This week, Tufts University announces a “1 plus 4” program in which students who are accepted can do a year of national service for a small stipend, followed by four years of college, which will ground their education in real-world problem-solving and have a corps of service leaders who can inspire others on campus to serve their community.

Such innovation from both a state and higher education could not come at a better time, with national service programs receiving 580,000 applications for only 80,000 positions nationally. The Millennial Generation’s talent and idealism need to be harnessed, not needlessly lost.

Bipartisan momentum is building for the big idea of a service year for 18-to-28-year olds, at levels on par with the numbers of Americans who are on active duty in our military every year.

After years of pilot programs, America is poised to fulfill the promise of large-scale civilian national service.

Congress already passed the strongly bipartisan Serve America Act that calls for 250,000 national service positions annually within a few years.

The corporation that oversees VISTA, AmeriCorps and other national service programs is demonstrating the public impact and economic benefits of such service through its charismatic CEO, Wendy Spencer.

The president instructed 17 departments and agencies to expand national service, and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel just launched the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps with public and private commitments on a path to provide 100,000 service opportunities each year.

Action this week in Iowa could inspire states across America to follow Branstad’s lead.

Such an effort across more states would strengthen the culture of service that young people so desperately need and give them a rite of passage that would bind them to one another, their state and country.

Here’s hoping as goes Iowa, so goes the nation.

l John Bridgeland, Co-Chair, The Franklin Project at The Aspen Institute and former director, White House Domestic Policy Council. Comments: 

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