In pursuit of Dr. King’s beloved community

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Stand up. Speak up. It’s your turn.

“Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered his famous, “I Have a Dream,” speech during the Aug. 28, 1963, march on Washington, D.C.

Today, on this 25th Annual MLK Day of Service, Americans across the country will honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by rolling up their sleeves and making a difference in their communities through volunteerism and service. At many of these events, this quote by Dr. King will be read: “Everybody can be great because anyone can serve.” 

Also celebrating its silver anniversary this year is AmeriCorps, the civilian national service program that unites diverse Americans from different backgrounds and walks of life in addressing some of our country’s most pressing challenges through service. Since 1994, more than 6,400 Granite Staters, most of whom are between the ages of 17-24, have served approximately 9.7 million hours through AmeriCorps. 

A 2013 report by Columbia University economists demonstrates the significant return on investment for national service programs: every dollar invested in national service generates almost $4 in returns to society in terms of higher earnings, increased output, and other community-wide benefits. Voters have taken notice. A 2015 poll of registered voters across nine presidential battleground states found that voters across the political spectrum overwhelmingly support investing federal taxpayer dollars to support national service programs. 83% of voters want Congress either to maintain or increase federal spending on national service programs.  

Every day across New Hampshire, AmeriCorps members make our communities safer, stronger, healthier, and improve the lives of our state’s most vulnerable citizens in exchange for a modest living stipend and a $6,195 Segal AmeriCorps Education Award at the end of their 1700-hour service term. According to the 2017 AmeriCorps Alumni Outcomes Study, 90 percent of alumni reported that their experience improved their ability to solve problems, 80 percent feel confident they can create a plan to address a community issue and get others to care about it, and 79 percent either are or plan to become actively involved in their community post-service, compared to just 47 percent prior. 

So it’s no wonder that New Hampshire employers including The Timberland Company, FIRST®, and Families In Transition have established preferential hiring practices for service year alumni, recognizing their experience as a unique, valuable asset in their workforce. Similarly, a handful of colleges and universities like the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy and Antioch University have joined the AmeriCorps Education Award Matching Program, sending a message to service year alumni they’re not only encouraged to apply, but that they’re exactly the type of students that these institutions want on their campuses.

These service-driven, community-minded young people, many of whom grew up out-of-state before moving to New Hampshire for AmeriCorps, are a largely-untapped talent pool. Given our state’s workforce challenges and goal of ensuring that 65 percent of adults have a high-value credential or postsecondary degree by 2025, we should be doing much more to proactively attract and retain more service year alumni for college and career in the Granite State.

On Thursday, I will introduce House Bills 1498 and 1499, which are aimed at strengthening and expanding our state’s ecosystem of opportunities to serve, learn, and earn. HB1498 would establish preferential hiring policies for service year alumni when applying for state government jobs, modeled after Governor Sununu’s 2019 executive order prioritizing applications of current and former National Guard members. Similarly, HB1499 would establish service year-friendly admission policies for public institutions of higher education in the State of New Hampshire. 

There are also actions that the United States Congress can and should take to remove barriers for young people to serve, like raising the AmeriCorps living stipend and removing the federal income tax from the hard-earned Segal AmeriCorps Education Award. Only then will we get closer to achieving Dr. King’s dream that “Everybody can be great because anyone can serve,” instead of just those who can afford to live on the modest AmeriCorps living stipend.

As a state, we can lead the way in making a voluntary, paid service year not only a common expectation and opportunity for all young people, but also one that leads to an affordable postgraduate credential or degree and meaningful employment in New Hampshire. 

Imagine a day when admitted students are offered course credit and/or additional scholarship dollars in acknowledgement of their service year experience — before, during or after their studies — so they’re able to graduate sooner and with less debt…

Imagine a day when students arrive on campus better focused and decided on a major because of the clarity they experienced through their service year and the ease with which they were able to defer their admission until they were ready… 

Imagine a day when applicants for employment are asked the question, “Where and what did you do for your service year?” — and then had great answers about how their service year taught them about themselves, about working with other people, and helped to prepare them for a meaningful career.

Most state-based policy proposals to strengthen service year workforce pathways shouldn’t cost much. It simply requires us to have the foresight to connect the dots and pass common-sense policies that help provide more opportunity to the service-driven, community-minded young people that we’ll need to keep our economy and our communities thriving for decades to come.

To honor the legacy of Dr. King, let’s recommit ourselves to creating “qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives” in pursuit of a stronger, more inclusive, and more beloved community. 

Beg to differ? Agree to disagree? All viewpoints are considered here. Send your thoughtful prose on topics of interest to, subject line: The Soapbox.

RRep. Matt Wilhelm represents Manchester Wards 1-3 in the NH House of Representatives, where he chairs the Service Year Workforce Commission and serves on the board of Volunteer NH. A two-term AmeriCorps alumnus with City Year New Hampshire, Rep. Wilhelm will be honored next month in Washington, D.C. as the 2020 National Service Advocate of the Year for exemplary determination, creativity, and results in building support for national service.

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