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June 12, 2007

at cygyzy

I'm going to New Hampshire just for today to speak at City Year's annual conference, which is called "cygyzy" (that's Greek for "a rare alignment of celestial bodies"). City Year, a part of Americorps, is a full-time program for about 1,200 young adults--some on a college track, and some not--who work in teams on service projects. With characteristic savvy, City Year is holding cygyzy '07 in New Hampshire during the presidential primary season and has lined up Bill Clinton, Judd Gregg, Jim Lehrer, and various other luminaries as keynote speakers.

Fittingly, I'll speak to a smaller group; and I'm planning to make the following argument:

We have traditionally defined and defended programs such as City Year as "voluntary service." That seems politically smart--who's against service? Accordingly, we have justified City Year in two main ways. First, it's supposed to be a very cost-effective--in fact, downright cheap--means of providing social services, such as mentoring and camp counseling for disadvantaged kids. Second, it's supposed to benefit the City Year volunteers, who acquire leadership skills and probably gain psychological benefits, too. Looked at that way, the City Year volunteers are actually the recipients of "services"--again, at low cost.

These justifications are problematic. Maybe City Year provides cheap services, but its corps members are paid, in part with federal funds. Doesn't the taxpayer get an even better deal from completely unpaid voluntary service? The Corporation for National and Community Service, which runs Americorps, likes to note that Americans give away $152 billion in services every year by volunteering. If we are primarily interested in how much "service" Americans generate, $152 billion of free labor utterly dwarfs City Year's federal funding and renders the program rather trivial.

Likewise, the benefits to the corps members seem beside the point. They don't volunteer to gain leadership skills. They are "putting idealism to work."

So I want to make a much bigger claim for City Year. Its corps members are not engaged in voluntary service; they are citizen workers. America desperately needs citizen workers, and City Year provides a model, a training program, and a laboratory.

The word "citizen" bothers some of us because it excludes immigrants, who can obviously benefit their communities even if they aren't naturalized. At the same time, it includes George W. Bush, Bill Gates, and your local school superintendent; but we don't mean them when we think of "citizen work." Still, it's the best word I can think of for an active member of the national community, someone who has standing, dignity, and the ability to contribute simply by virtue of belonging. If you're born or naturalized in the USA, you don't have to qualify for citizenship by getting specialized training or credentials or by obtaining a special office. You are a citizen by right.

But citizens who do "citizen work" are not merely people who belong to the community. They contribute actively. They may be pursuing a whole career of public service, contributing occasionally as part of their jobs, or giving unpaid time after work. They not only provide services, but also help to define problems in discussion with other citizens. The develop and implement plans for addressing those problems.

Today, America faces grievous challenges, such as a high school dropout rate of one third, homeland security threats, and global warming.

America has never overcome any major challenge without tapping the skills, energies, and passions of millions of our citizens. Citizen work is the genius of American democracy.

But citizen work is in decline. People are substantially less likely to work on community projects or to attend meetings than they were a generation ago. This is why programs like City Year are so important: as models of a different kind of politics.

June 12, 2007 7:10 AM | category: none


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