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Uniting a divided nation

If you’ve turned on the news or scrolled through social media over the past few weeks, your optimism about the state of our country may be waning.  Respectful political discourse has hit a new low, rhetoric on social media is alienating, and our country is more divided than it has been in decades.

As this presidential race plays out — in what will likely be the most expensive and contentious campaign in history — it’s easy to get caught up in all of the things that separate us.  Fortunately, there is one idea that can unite us, spread the burdens of defending our freedom abroad and at home, help address the pressing issues facing our communities, and cultivate the future leaders our country so desperately needs.

{mosads}As two people from different parties and parts of the country, we may disagree about many things.  But we agree about the value of a “service year.” And we are not alone — we stand with the 83 percent of Americans who believe that the federal government should maintain or invest in national service, as the private sector continues to support and match these efforts.

This issue has been bipartisan for decades and continues to be a focus for current policymakers and leaders. For instance, Hillary Clinton has proposed a plan to strengthen and expand national service in her campaign platform. And Republican leaders like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — the chairman of Donald Trump’s transition team — have been vocal about the positive impact of national service in their home states and called for expanding opportunities to serve to help tackle student debt.

It’s time for the next president — and our nation — to embrace a service year as a cultural expectation and common opportunity.  The reasons for large-scale national service that engages 18-28 year olds in common purpose are overwhelming.

First, unlike previous generations, Americans have been fighting its wars abroad without much sacrifice back home.  The American Revolution, Civil War, and the two World Wars required service and sacrifice by large numbers of Americans on U.S. and foreign soil.  As brave men and women sacrifice overseas to protect our freedom today, we should foster that same ethic of service at home by ensuring our young men and women have an opportunity to do a service year in local communities across the nation.  Service isn’t somebody else’s job – it is everybody’s duty.   

Second, trust in one another and in key institutions is at historic lows.  A service year by young Americans will bring citizens of all backgrounds together to roll up their sleeves and take on the issues facing our communities — tutoring and mentoring struggling students, supporting military families, assisting communities as they recover from natural disasters, cleaning up our rivers and parks, helping the elderly age with dignity, and boosting economic opportunity.  Having positive service experiences that bring young people of all races, ethnicities, income levels, religious affiliations, and political beliefs together in common purpose can heal our divided nation by restoring trust in one another and our ability to solve tough challenges.

Third, we both were governors and always looking for efficient ways to solve public problems in our states.  A service year is a cost-effective solution to some of the most pressing challenges facing our nation today — from responding to natural disasters and fighting poverty to mentoring at-risk students and helping our veterans reintegrate back into society.  Research shows that for every dollar invested in service year opportunities, we see nearly four dollars in returns to society.

Finally, not only does a year of service make a lasting impact on local communities, but the young people who serve also develop valuable professional and leadership skills that they carry with them for a lifetime.  A service year is a pathway to college or a first job — a chance to develop one’s passion and find a purpose, help defray the costs of college, and create the leaders who can strengthen our nation for decades to come.

Every year we see young Americans joining the U.S. military to serve our nation.  This would be an additional opportunity for young Americans, who may not choose the military, to serve our country.  We don’t need a big public relations campaign to sell the idea.  Research shows that a million young Americans every year would be ready to step forward and serve full-time if given the opportunity. Young people in our country are eager to make an impact and leave their mark on our nation, and expanding opportunities for them to serve is answering this call.

For all these reasons, we have joined dozens of leaders from the entertainment, technology, business, military, government, and nonprofit sectors to endorse Service Year Alliance and Voices for National Service’s joint Challenge to Presidential Candidates. This diverse group of individuals has come together to urge Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the nominees from both political parties, to make a service year a common opportunity for young Americans of all backgrounds.

Specifically, we ask the nominees to make this big idea a national priority and they can do it by proposing to increase positions in quality programs, such as Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, VISTA and YouthBuild.  And they can encourage states, communities, and nonprofit organizations to create service year positions that solve local problems — in partnership with the Service Year Exchange — to bridge the divide between the public and private sectors while connecting individuals who want to serve with organizations in search of talent to help them achieve their missions.

We both have put our differences aside to unify our country and endorse this tremendous plan, and we urge our two presidential candidates to do the same and think about the legacy they want to leave. America is blessed with wonderful young people who want to give back to our nation.  Together, let’s answer this call and make a service year a common opportunity for every young person in America.

Jennifer Granholm is the former Democratic Governor of Michigan and Dirk Kempthorne is the former Republican Governor of Idaho. 

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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