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This Harvard grad has a simple strategy for healing our divided country

“We do not have to compel citizens to serve their country,” the late Sen. Edward M. Kennnedy once said. “All we have to do is ask — and provide the opportunity.” (iStock)
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At the memorial service for the Dallas officers killed last week, President Obama insisted that “we’re not as divided as we seem.”

But for many Americans it doesn’t feel that way. Congress is intransigent. Our presidential candidates are divisive. Race relations are tense. Social classes are disconnected.

While there’s no one solution to heal all that is broken, there’s a belief that one remedy might be more people doing community service.

America is a country that extols rugged individualism and people who make it on their own, but along the way, in that search for personal growth, many have forgotten service beyond ourselves. Over the years, a number of academic studies have shown that volunteering has real benefits for mental and even physical health, yet in 2014, 75 percent of Americans did not volunteer, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Fewer college students aspire to careers in public service. The military has its smallest share of Americans serving since before World War II. Just shy of 20 percent of 18- to 29-year-old citizens voted in the 2014 midterm election.

This, some argue, is what has made us retreat to our respective corners with little regard for communities outside our own.

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In January, Joe Kearns Goodwin gave a local TED Talk in Boston called “National Service Can Make America Great Again,” wherein he laid out the benefits of doing work outside one’s self-interest.

He grew up in an affluent Massachusetts town, his father an adviser to presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, his mother the famous presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. He went to Harvard, with plans to attend a prestigious law school and one day work in Washington like his parents.

That trajectory changed on Sept. 11, 2001. Goodwin, then 23, felt a powerful calling to serve. So, he enlisted in the Army days later and served overseas in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He left the Army in 2006 only to be called back to serve again in Afghanistan in 2008.

While Goodwin was overseas, he wrote emails home to his mother. In one, he wrote: “When you lay out in balance — the value of my service to the country against the value of that same service to me; it quickly becomes clear that it is I who have been granted the greater gift.”

In the military, Goodwin worked alongside people he would probably have never met if he’d followed his original life plan. Regardless of where they came from, they all worked together for a common cause — for something bigger than themselves.

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“Because we had become a blended unit, we were able to abandon ego and entitlement, to press on despite our differences,” he said in his TED Talk. “Where does that blending occur today in our culture?”

Since his talk, Goodwin has joined the growing chorus of advocates in support of a national year of service.

The main vehicle is the Service Year Alliance, a nonprofit coalition trying to encourage young people to dedicate one year to some kind of service. It envisions a time when asking a person, “Where are you doing your service year?” will be as ubiquitous as asking, “Where are you going to college?”

The idea was borne out of a discussion between CBS Evening News anchor Bob Schieffer and Gen. Stanley McChrystal at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2012. Schieffer said there wasn’t a real common experience for Americans anymore, which launched a conversation about whether there should be a mandatory year of service for young people.

“I don’t think young people would fight it if everybody did it. I’m not talking military, I’m talking all kind of things,” McChrystal said. “But I also think that the payoff is not what they do — it’s not whether they go build roads and parks or that sort of thing — it’s what you put inside them. Because once you have contributed to something, you have a slightly different view of it, and I think that it would be good to have a shared experience.”

The alliance launched in January, a merger of nonprofit groups that all worked in the service space, and it plans to fully start an awareness campaign to reach young people in the fall. As of now, the alliance has identified 65,000 different full-time, year-long opportunities for young Americans to do their year of service.

It’s not that people don’t want to serve, said MacKenzie Moritz, chief of staff at Service Year Alliance, it’s that they’re not aware of what is available to them.

In the spirit of his brother’s famous quote, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy once said. “We do not have to compel citizens to serve their country. All we have to do is ask — and provide the opportunity.”

If a year of service became a rite of passage for young adults, advocates believe it would dramatically mend our fragmented citizenry.

“By providing more opportunities for people to feel part of something bigger than themselves, we can more strongly stitch together the fabric of our nation,” Moritz said. “In our increasingly siloed society, there are too few opportunities for people to build relationships with people from different backgrounds and perspectives. If every American had benefited from the transformational experience of service year as a young adult, the nightly news would likely look very different today.”

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