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Flint shows Michigan, nation, how volunteering can be rite of passage

Aug 31, 2015

The Next Idea

In Michigan and across the country, our society is suffering from a lack of civic engagement. Many people do not have strong connections to their communities. In addition, we have vast unmet needs in our cities, our neighborhoods, and our other social infrastructure. Government has limited resources, and communities are suffering. But there is a generation of young people like me who want the opportunity to make a difference in our country by helping communities address their most difficult social challenges.

Flint is a national leader in its use of AmeriCorps volunteers to help with issues such as education and public safety.
Credit Courtesy of Michigan Nonprofit Association

According to the Pew Research Center, 21 percent of millennials say that helping others in need is one of the most important things in their lives, while only 15 percent say the same about having a high-paying career . 

What it means to be civically engaged is changing. 

In the past, the only way you could serve your country was through military service or the Peace Corps. Now the younger generations are demanding integrated engagement opportunities, such as longer volunteer opportunities in their own communities and shopping at stores that support a social mission.

What if every young person in Michigan had the opportunity to address community challenges in areas such as health, education, and conservation while developing job skills and a strengthened sense of civic responsibility?

So what’s the Next Idea?

Enter the concept of a service year. Typically, in exchange for a modest stipend and living arrangements, participants are paired with a non-profit organization and commit to work on the ground to help advance its mission for one calendar year. 

This is not a new idea. Traditional national service programs like AmeriCorps, VISTA, Senior Corps, and the National Civilian Conservation Corps (NCCC) have been providing opportunities for people to serve with local nonprofits for years.

What is new, however, is the rising demand for more of these kinds of opportunities. Last year more than half a million applications were submitted for service positions nationally. In Michigan, although we have more than 11,000 people of all ages participating in national service, even more would like to serve but there just aren’t enough positions available. This is a great problem to have, and one worth finding solutions for immediately.

An expansion of service-year opportunities could engage so many more 18- to 28-year-olds and unleash a reservoir of human capital to help repair our state.

Groups such as the Franklin Project and its Service Year Alliance partners are focused on promoting what they refer to as “the big idea.” They believe that a year of service should be a civic rite of passage because it will connect us to something bigger than ourselves and to the idea that citizenship requires more from each of us than is currently expected.

In June, the Franklin Project mobilized 47 Ambassadors across the country, representing 25 states and 35 cities, to spread the word about “the big idea” and expand service-year opportunities for young people.

Flint leads the way

As one of the participating cities, Flint has become a national model for how “the big idea” can be implemented and how it can help lift up our most struggling cities.

Since taking office in 2009, Flint Mayor Dayne Walling has championed service as a strategy to reinvent the city. Aligned with this strategy, leaders from the C.S. Mott Foundation, the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, and the Boys & Girls Club established the Flint National Service Accelerator in 2011.

An expansion of service-year opportunities could engage so many more 18- to 28-year-olds and unleash a reservoir of human capital to help repair our state.

The Accelerator helps local organizations find national service members and provides funding to organizations to help them with member stipends and also offers training and networking for members placed throughout the city.

The city’s vision is to boost the number of service-year participants from 25 in 2014-15 to 250 by 2019.

To realize this goal, a group called the Service Champions Workgroup formed last year to develop a five-year plan for expanding national service and volunteerism in Flint.

Flint has already received national recognition for one of its largest initiatives, the Flint Community Schools Corps, which launched a year ago. This AmeriCorps program helps Flint schools expand its education initiative by working to establish schools as neighborhood hubs that create stronger families, healthier neighborhoods, and higher rates of student academic success. Flint was one of only 10 communities nationwide to be awarded this type of program.

The city is also building a new program called the Flint Safety Corps. Based on a successful initiative in Detroit, the Urban Safety Corps plans to address crime, blight, and a lack of community engagement along the city’s University Avenue Corridor. 

What is happening in Flint could be happening across the state of Michigan. It will take financial investment from the business and philanthropic communities to increase the number of service-year opportunities to meet demand. 

If successful, “the big idea” could help repair our civic infrastructure, address the ongoing challenges in our communities, keep young people in the state, and give a generation of young people practical life skills and the ability to empathize with their fellow Michiganders.

We have the people who want to help. We would be missing out on a huge opportunity if we don’t expand ways to connect them to where that help is sorely needed.  

Chelsea Martin is the civic engagement manager for the Michigan Nonprofit Association and an ambassador for the Franklin Project. 

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