In 1958, my father was drafted into the U.S. Army. There was no war at the time, he did not serve overseas, however, my wife’s father did during the Vietnam War. For young men growing up between 1940 and 1973, the expectation of required military service was standard because of conscription in the United States. Since the draft ended, we have not maintained formal commitments to one another by way of service. 

In the 1990’s, I played basketball professionally in Finland, where a year of service is mandated by law. All male citizens at age 18 are required to register for a year of military or civilian service. Women can also apply on a voluntary basis. All of the Fins I met spoke proudly of their national service experience, and related it to their commitment to one another as citizens. Finland also invests heavily in social services, has excellent school systems, low crime and is consistently ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world. 

Ironically, as we become more connected through the internet and social media, feelings of loneliness, isolation and disconnection are reaching epidemic levels in the United States. According to a January 2020 report from Cigna, more than three in five Americans feel lonely. Feelings of isolation are connected to social media use, are most prevalent among Gen Z, and can have widespread effects on physical health.

Much has changed since the days of conscription in the U.S. in terms of culture, technology, demographics and socioeconomics, and we are no longer in a time where people must commit to their country and fellow residents as part of their citizenship. However, the idea of compulsory national service, in an expanded way, could be the key to reconnection. And given the state of racial inequity, our economic systems, and our climate, the need to extend ourselves to each other is critical now — arguably more than ever. 

This is an idea that is gaining momentum, from a recent essay in the New York Times to the continued advocacy of General Stanley McChrystal

Service to others or to a greater good has tremendous benefits for individuals and for society. Service can boost physical and mental well-being and produce more lasting feelings of happiness and satisfaction. Research shows that happiness comes from giving to others rather than to one’s self. Through actions of service, one can foster greater empathy for and understanding of others. 

Additionally, a study by Columbia University found that national service, when viewed as an investment, produces significant economic returns for participants, taxpayers and society. A 2020 study by Voices for National Service shows that with programs like AmeriCorps and SeniorCorps, every one dollar of federal taxes invested returns $17.30 to society, program members and the federal government. 

One of the greatest ways to be of service is through mentorship. At Capital Partners for Education, we provide one-on-one mentoring and college and career success programming to low-income students in the Washington, D.C., area. Our mentors come from all backgrounds and professional sectors, and what I hear often is how much value they unexpectedly receive from their mentoring relationship. 

One of our students, David, had been preparing for college while also beginning to embrace their identity as a nonbinary person. Their mentor shared with me in a deeply emotional way how much he had gained from his relationship with David. Because he had not had meaningful interactions with a young person of color or with someone who is nonbinary, the mentoring relationship had been transformative for him. In his words, “I thought I’d be doing the giving, but I absolutely received much more than I gave.” I have heard sentiments like this countless times in the two decades I’ve spent leading mentoring programs.

Mentorship, and service alike, can build bridges across divides, open us up to new experiences, and foster connections centered on love, care and compassion.  

Although service programs in the United States have long existed, the idea of mandatory civilian service resurfaced in a mainstream way through The Aspen Institute’s Franklin Project. Now merged with other service organizations to form Service Year Alliance, their goal is to make a year of paid, full-time service a common expectation and opportunity for all young Americans. Data shows service years have led to improved education outcomes, career advancement and higher wages, and even crime reduction in some cities. 

While service requires more from all of us, it does not take much. One of my favorite Martin Luther King Jr. quotes is, “Everybody can be great...because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” It is the willingness to give of yourself to a greater purpose that can renew our connections to one another that have been lost. 

Our country has seen increased commitments to service during times of war, and this moment of heightened division and income inequality requires a similar investment from our citizens. We have an opportunity through service to repair the fractures in our society if our leaders create the systems for more robust national service and ask more of us once again. 

Let us once again imagine service as an extension of our fundamental values. Through compulsory national service, we can build a culture of empathy, understanding, and giving that empowers individuals and strengthens communities. The good in all of us can truly be realized when we recommit to extending it to others.

Khari Brown is the Chief Executive Officer of Capital Partners for Education. Since 1993, Capital Partners for Education has provided one-to-one mentoring and college and career success programming to low-income students in the Washington D.C. – area.

Published on Jul 26, 2021