The White House is announcing the 2009 Summer of Service in conjunction with the Corporation for National and Community Service within a week. The first summer of service happened in the 1960s in honor of the vision of President Kennedy, who sought to build a culture of service among American youth. There was a lull in interest from the original Summer of Service all the way into the 1990s, when the resurgence of interest in national service led to many half-baked attempts to replicate the original event. The most popular was probably President Clinton’s original event in 1994, launching AmeriCorps, the National Civilian Community Corps, and re-invigorating the Senior Corps and VISTA. Senator Edward Kennedy worked with the White House to re-envision this historic mechanism, the largest issue being the inherent unsustainability of single-event service promotion. That’s why the White House is emphasizing communities across the country using the Summer of Service as a launching plan to engage entire communities in sustainable service throughout the year.
While the emphasis is on community-wide engagement, I’m concerned that the reality is that youth will continue to provide the brunt of the labor force for this endeavor. It is good that youth serve their communities. The concept of service is vital for the health of democracy. The absence of education about how and why that is the case is disconcerting, but the main dilemma I identify in the Summer of Service is that reality about the disproportion between youth serving and adults serving: raising a generation that cares, that feels commitment towards the greater good of society has led to a kind of bottleneck situation in many of our communities. The burden of proof has been placed on the shoulders of the youngest among us to prove the value of service, and for the most part the whole of society has failed to see that.
Truly a community organizer, I believe President Obama should seriously consider and reconsider its strategy for engaging parents, families and the broader community in service. Youth participation is a given in the climate of national service today; let’s address the real gap in service among Americans today by focuing on engaging adults in service and building their ethic of service. By doing this the national service community can go further than its history and truly build a culture of service that supports lifelong service and community engagement.