Banding together to provide community service builds Army-foxhole-like solidarity. Programs like City Year, in which ex-gang members may serve alongside college students who have deferred admission, prove that small corps can accomplish vital community service. They also implode stereotypes. We learn that what unites us our musical tastes, the jokes we find funny and, more fundamentally, our belief in healing cities through grime and sweat dwarfs our divisions. Why is this important? Virtually all forms of social engagement have declined over the past generation, from the time spent visiting neighbors to the number of community projects and close friendships. And these social and civic connections actually lubricate society, helping connected Americans improve their health and happiness and find meaningful work. These connections also strengthen communities. Among the most critical yet hardest-to-build social ties are bonds that cross racial, ethnic and class cleavages, especially as our communities become increasingly diverse. Daily, many of us inadvertently reinforce racial barriers; national service can catalyze our moral obligation to dismantle them.
Sander directs the Saguaro Seminar on Civic Engagement at Harvard's Kennedy School