A Year of Service: From small screen to big picture

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The Middle is the first-ever network television show to feature a character serving in AmeriCorps (Pic credit: ServiceNation)

As featured in The Guardian’s Pick of the blogs

TV programmes, movies and social media will help attract a younger, digital-savvy generation in the US to take a ‘year of service’, claims a new campaign backed by former president Bill Clinton. But are story lines about community service really enough to inspire a new generation of pre- or post-college gappers?

Chelsea Clinton recently teamed up with US chat show host Jimmy Kimmel to launch Serve A Year – the Clinton Foundation-backed drive by advocacy organisation ServiceNation to get one million young people volunteering in the US by 2023.

The goal: to harness the talents of millennials to tackle a heap of social issues including food poverty and youth unemployment. With a longer lens, the campaign hopes to inspire and nurture the nation’s future leaders and problem solvers. More ambitiously perhaps, Chelsea Clinton’s aspiration is that a service year after high school or college will become “the expectation, not the exception”, part of growing up in America.

Beyond volunteering

Campaign spokesman Tim Smith says a service year “is not a volunteer opportunity, but a year-long service commitment”, through programs like AmeriCorps that come with a paycheck. AmeriCorps members are supported with a living stipend of an average $14,000 a year  (depending on the particular program), plus a $5,500 education award received upon completion of their service year that can be used for educational purposes (tuition, books, student loans etc).

Airbnb will donate accommodation and support for approximately 1,000 AmeriCorps members as they move to new cities for their year of service. There are 80,000 AmeriCorps positions available this year. One goal for Serve A Year is to expand these opportunities, says Smith.

Compelling campaign

Serve A Year is a well-connected campaign that unites non profits like AmeriCorps and Teach for America with some of the biggest US media and entertainment companies such as Comcast and NBCUniversal, Tumblr, YouTube and FunnyOrDie. 

As part of the Serve A Year campaign, ABC’s The Middle recently featured a character (Brad) deferring college to spend a year with AmeriCorps (“It’s kind of like the Peace Corps, but for America!”). When he finishes his service, ‘Brad’ can use his Segal AmeriCorps Education Award to reduce his college costs.

The campaign is based on a similar initiative that helped popularise the concept of the “designated driver”. Harvard School of Public Health worked with Hollywood writers to insert drunk driving prevention messages into popular shows over a four-year period; more than 160 prime-time programs incorporated this concept and the country saw a 30% decline in drunk driving fatalities between 1988 and 1994.

YouTube is among the channels that Serve A Year hopes will attract its target market. Latest research shows that three-quarters of millennials have an account on a social networking site, compared with only half of Generation Xers, and less than a third of the Baby Boomers.

Service nation?

Clinton et al hope that this will be a compelling argument for their new breed of national service, in a country where almost six million 16-24 year olds are not in school or employment. According to government data, millennials now represent the largest generation in the US, comprising around one third of the total population in 2013.

In the UK, organisations such as CSV and Year Here continue to attract UK millennials to community service opportunities. But with total student outstanding loan debt in the US over $1 trillion at the end of the second quarter of 2014 (the second largest category of household debt), is it really feasible to have post-grads doing voluntary service rather than getting a job?

Absolutely, says ServiceNation executive director Zach Maurin: “Today, the expected path is high school, college and then a career.

“We want to redefine growing up to include a service year that will help tackle our nation’s challenges and empower the next generation. We envision a day when you’re as likely to hear young people ask each other, ‘Where will your year of service be?’ as you would, ‘Where are you applying to college?’”

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