Robinson Mischaracterizes Service

To the editors:

In “Servitude Nation” (Op-ed, Sept. 18), Daniel P. Robinson criticizes efforts by Senators Obama and McCain and the coalition of 114 organizations called ServiceNation to promote voluntary national and community service. Robinson uses a series of “straw-men,” challenging the legality of national service as well as the intent of those who desire to strengthen and grow the service sector. Unfortunately, Robinson recycles many tired and specious arguments.

Robinson suggests that we already have enough volunteering available in America. How then can you explain the fact that there are more than 3 applicants for every available AmeriCorps slot, or that Teach For America had 24,718 applicants for 3,700 positions? You can bet the residents of the Gulf Coast, Davenport, Iowa and other regions hit by national disaster wish there were more AmeriCorps members to fill the gaps left by the private sector, and FEMA, in response to natural disasters.

However, the crux of Robinson’s argument seems to be that the purpose of “nationalistic” programs is “not service for its own sake, but service as a way to strengthen people’s ties to their government.” This is an unfortunate misconception of the entire service movement. The point of voluntary service—paid or unpaid—is to free citizens from reliance on government programs and solutions, provide ways for Americans to dedicate their time to helping others, and unleash citizen energy on pressing, persistent problems in education, our environment, and disaster relief. The growth of the service movement, in fact, is a reflection of the reality that big government bureaucracies haven’t always been very successful or efficient. Community and national service is not just about painting over graffiti or picking up litter, but about creating pathways for citizens to help address big social challenges.

Even Senators McCain and Obama find room to agree on the importance of service. That is reflected in part by their recent historic agreement at the ServiceNation Presidential Forum and Summit in New York City this past September 11th and 12th to co-sponsor the new bi-partisan “Serve America Act” with Senators Kennedy, Hatch, Dodd, Cochran, and Clinton. This new legislation will grow AmeriCorps by 175,000 corps members, strengthen and grow the Peace Corps, and create new problem solving corps in education, disaster relief, environmental protection, and other areas. Despite the negative attacks of this presidential season, it is a powerful testament to the widespread appeal of service that these two presidential rivals are co-sponsoring this ground-breaking legislation.

ETHAN L. GRAY ‘05-06



Cambridge, Mass.

September 24, 2008

Ethan L. Gray is the director of education policy at Be the Change, inc., and he is an affiliate of ServiceNation. Kent Park is a captain in the U.S army, and he is the military outreach coordinator for ServiceNation.


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