Commentary: Community service is a public investment

Greg Ballard’s election as mayor of Indianapolis continues his admirable career of public service. Considering his background, it comes as no surprise that he is interested in reviving the “Front Porch Alliance.” Through this historically faith- and volunteerdriven civic partnership, with a little imagination, Mayor Ballard could create a national model of community service.

The concept of compulsory community service is not a new one. William James proposed national service in his 1910 essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War.” He worried that America’s newfound wealth would make its young soft and selfish, sapping the hardy pioneer spirit that built the nation. He envisioned service as a way to “inflame the civic temper” and foster the sentiments of solidarity that characterize societies at war, but often dissipate in peace time.

The 9/11 attacks sparked a surge of applications to programs such as Ameri-Corps and the Peace Corps. Unfortunately, the White House administration was unable to direct this civic idealism to tackle challenges such as education, long-term care for the elderly, and security and defense.

Fortunately, others did recognize the opportunity. Senators Evan Bayh, D-Indiana, and John McCain, R-Arizona, championed legislation to expand AmeriCorps from 75,000 participants to 250,000 members a year. McCain and Bayh also drove the enactment of the “citizen-soldier” short-term enlistment program. This program, begun in 2003, enables volunteers to enlist for 15 months of active duty followed by 24 months in the Reserves, a departure from the standard four years of active duty.

Community service should be a rite of passage for young Americans on their way to responsible and productive citizenship and an opportunity for older Americans to pass something on to their children and grandchildren.

Community service is a training ground for our multiethnic democracy, one of the few public venues in which youths from our increasingly stratified and segmented society routinely interact. The experience of working together across racial, ethnic and class lines to solve common problems hones the basic skills of democratic citizenship. Participants are able to see past stereotypes, empathize with others, negotiate and compromise, and transcend group identities.

The United States has very high rates of poverty, especially among children; outof-wedlock births; and youth violence, as well as a wide racial and ethnic gap in educational achievement when compared with other developed countries. Indianapolis shares many of these problems. By restructuring the Front Porch Alliance, Ballard could direct resources to problems such as:

education and the tutoring and mentoring of children, including those without twoparent families or with a parent in prison,

care and assistance for the homeless and elderly,

security in our neighborhoods from crime and terrorism.

The volunteerism that characterized the Front Porch Alliance did not create a systematic way to address the community’s most pressing needs. A revitalized effort should aim to mobilize citizens in focused, disciplined, results-oriented efforts to solve our community problems.

The mayor could start by linking a public benefit such as college aid to public service, creating a balance between citizen rights and responsibilities. For example, Indiana Secondary Market, a state-sponsored not-for-profit with assets of about $2 billion in educational loans to Indiana students, could require students who have loans serviced by them to participate in some form of community service.

Community service is unique as a dual public investment in America’s human capital. First, service volunteers do work that improves the lives of Americans. Second, volunteers earn education awards that encourage them to attend college and defray at least some of its costs.

With a little imagination, the mayor could create a Front Porch Alliance that makes a lasting meaningful contribution to the community and to its citizens.

Williams is regional venture partner of Hopewell Ventures, a Midwest-focused private-equity firm. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at

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