Like my native USA, Britain faces tough times.
Like the USA, Britain is fighting to get the economy moving. We are also both grappling with difficult social problems, like rising youth unemployment, entrenched education and economic inequalities between rich and poor.
In tight financial times, tough decisions need to be made. But equally, both the US and Britain need to think differently about how we tackle our social problems. Like the U.S., Britain is starting to embrace a powerful idea. And that's mobilizing the most powerful resource it has - the British people.
Britain's proud tradition of volunteering dates back centuries as one of the world's richest civil societies. But something big is happening that pushes the envelope of social-problem solving in tough fiscal times. With the launch of City Year London - which enlists 108 young adults for a full year of national service in a dozen inner city schools to reach 6,000 children with academic and social supports, the British national service movement is now on the march. Imagine what Britain could do with a new army of citizens showing the way forward. A 21st century National Service model.
In the United States, Presidents from both Democrat and Republican parties have worked to give more Americans a civilian counterpart to the military with this bargain - if you serve your country for a full year working through City Year, Habitat for Humanity, Teach for America or other nonprofits, you will receive a small living stipend and financial support to defray the cost of college. This is a smaller version of the GI bill that provided the financial support to educate an entire generation in the U.S. to move into the middle class.
To take just one example that now represents a powerful partnership between Britain and the U.S., this year there are 2,500 City Year participants in the U.S. serving in 236 schools, reaching 150,000 students. Because of their work, America is making significant progress in boosting attendance, improving discipline, and increasing math and reading performance in some of the lowest-performing schools. National service is indeed a solution to America's high school dropout epidemic, which claims about 1 million students a year with huge costs to them, taxpayers and society.
As students in Britain go back to school, teams of 18-25 year olds will dedicate a year of their lives to serve as role models and mentors, focusing all of their energy and commitment to supporting children to fulfill their ambitions. They are dream-makers, helping to keep youth on track to graduate from school and fulfill their promise in a workforce that needs their skills.
But they also represent something larger - the potential of an army of citizens who could solve other social problems at low cost to the taxpayer and transform millions of lives, including those who give a year to their country.
The U.K. and U.S. share a historic bond. Now is the time for that bond to be strengthened over an idea that both countries should further embrace - large-scale national service to unleash the talents of a generation whose nations desperately need them.
John Bridgeland, CEO Civic Enterprises and former Director of White House Domestic Policy, serves on City Year's national Board of Trustees.
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