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Guest blogger Kristen Cambell is Program Director for the National Conference on Citizenship, a Congressionally chartered nonprofit that measures, tracks, and advocates for civic participation in the areas of national and community service, history and civics education, and political involvement.
Just hours ago, President Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act (the Act), a legislative initiative to expand and improve service opportunities for all Americans, harness social innovation toward public good, and ensure accountability, transparency and results.
A truly bi-partisan piece of legislation, the Act received strong support from both houses, passing the Senate with a vote of 79-19, and then the House, which passed it 275-149 by amending their previously passed bill, the Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education (GIVE) Act.
Recognizing service and civic engagement as an invaluable asset in solving some of America’s most challenging problems, in his first address to Congress, President Obama called for swift passing of the bill by sponsors Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT). Prior to his presidency, Obama was a co-sponsor of the Act in the Senate, and has made civic engagement a cause of his presidency.
Obama’s timely signing of the Act is particularly meaningful because April 19-25 is National Volunteer Week, a celebration of the nation’s volunteers and their commitment to making communities a better place. All across the country, the spirit of volunteerism will be celebrated through service projects, recognition ceremonies, and volunteer appreciation events. As money becomes tighter in times of economic challenge, we must recognize human capital through public engagement as a critical asset and see as a key in pulling our country through this challenge—this makes volunteer appreciation and the creation of meaningful service opportunities that much more important.
National and community service are important not only for the immediate help they provide, but also for the sustainable impact civic behaviors can cultivate by creating feelings of connectedness and increasing trust among individuals and for institutions—these factors are inextricably linked to creating a healthier society. Therefore, it is important that when programs and initiatives are measured for effectiveness that the system evaluate their civic return on investment—whether that investment be of time, talent, or treasure—as this valuation is critical to measuring the impact of civic engagement in communities.
Yet another reason the Serve America Act is critical is its inclusion of accountability metrics through the provision of America’s Civic Health Index (CHI) and the incorporation of its civic indicators in government data collection. Commissioned by the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC) in conjunction with a Civic Indicators Working Group, the CHI is an annual report that educates Americans about our civic life and motivates citizens, leaders and policymakers to strengthen it. With the Civic Health Index’s inclusion in the Act, NCoC will be able to work closely with the Corporation for National and Community Service to expand the reach and depth of the report and assist policy makers on the national, state and even local levels in harnessing the power of citizens to strengthen their communities and our country.