Service by any other name…
After three days at the US Conference on Volunteering and Service, convened by Points of Light in Atlanta last week, I am overwhelmed by the amazing impact that People Power is having in the United States: from Disaster Recovery to High School Coaching. It is palpable how the spirit of service and volunteering runs in the blood of the US identity.
But in the UK, the term “service” can often put people off. It’s a significant challenge as we adapt the Cities of Service model to the UK, and after three days steeped in the language of service and national identity, I’m both excited and confused about how we can recreate the spirit even when the language doesn’t translate.
Service in the American psyche
The idea of “service” is clearly embedded in the culture of what it means to be an American. It is oftentimes part of growing up given that many high schools require students to undertake community service in order to graduate. To harness this spirit, there are a number of federal backed organisations such as the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) that allow Americans to serve at every stage of their life.
National support for service
The AmeriCorps programme allows young people across the US to help organisations and city governments deliver improvements to people’s lives in a multitude of ways, sometimes serving for a full-year. AmeriCorps members support non-profits, schools, public agencies, and community and faith-based groups by completing projects, convening volunteers or getting their hands dirty cleaning up neighbourhoods.
Overall, AmeriCorps engages more than 75,000 men and women in intensive service each year at more than 15,000 locations; in the 20 years since founding, AmeriCorps volunteers have provided over 1 billion hours of Service across the United States.
Whilst swapping stories with AmeriCorps volunteers in Philadelphia, I heard from 11 of the 23 AmeriCorps, offering a year of service to work on projects within the City’s Government. One participant explained that giving back through AmeriCorps felt like her duty as an American citizen. Internally, I questioned whether a UK participant would claim the same.
Service for life
What is most inspiring about these service programmes in the US is how they have proven to be life-changing for those participating. As well as currently serving AmeriCorps volunteers, the 5,000 strong conference was dominated by a swathe of AmeriCorps Alums who have gone on to leadership positions in national and local government and in the non-profit world. They have used their service experiences to build a life and career that improves the lives of others – and they wear their AmeriCorps badges with pride. Mayor Dayne Walling of Flint, Michigan for example, was one speaker whose AmeriCorps experiences stayed with him in city politics - he now champions service initiatives addressing neighbourhood blight and emergency preparedness in Michigan as part of the US Cities of Service coalition.
And service isn’t just for the young: Senior Corps connects people aged 55+ to become mentors, coaches or companions to people in need, or contribute their job skills and expertise to community projects and organizations. As Companions, Foster Grandparents and local SHOPs (Seniors Helping Other People), serving remains a key part of the US identity throughout their lives.
The art of translation
Across the pond, we sometimes struggle to find an affinity with the language of “service” even though people in the UK serve the community, and by association their country, in a variety of ways. From the Flood Heroes of 2014 or the small acts of neighbourliness that take place across the country, people often do good, but don’t actively want to be labelled as a volunteer – it becomes even more of a leap to badge this as “service”.
It’s proven a challenge in how we adapt Cities of Service in the UK as the term does need translation. In reality we are likely to downplay the term “service” when we engage with our communities and individuals about what we mean, and what support we need to tackle their local issues. As a result, our language will often focus on helping specific communities or neighbourhoods rather than the idea of serving the city. As the programme evolves, it will be an interesting experiment to find which language resonates and which deters.
Learning from the US
But you do lose something when you take out the service element; service in the US is about a lifetime commitment to contributing and giving back, about recognising the privileges of being a US citizen and taking pride. It is a duty.
We’re seeing service models from the US adapted to the UK to create engaging opportunities and offer recognition for participants. City Year for example, takes service to a whole new level, adopting the US programme of 18-24 year olds dedicating a year of their lives to helping young people in schools on a voluntary basis; and by bringing over the Daily Points of Light Award, PM David Cameron has recognised the efforts of more than 40 ordinary heroes since April 2014 who can provide an example of service across the nation. Through Step Up to Serve, the UK government are aiming to double the number of 10-20 year olds involved in social action and make it a habit for life. They are looking to build the infrastructure by engaging voluntary sector leaders, business and government to create more opportunities for young people to participate.
Making it stick
Whilst I am overwhelmingly impressed by the intrinsic connection to service that people in the US have, I know that the language doesn’t always translate across the pond. But putting a little structure behind it and getting a bit more of the gusto and recognition that I have seen over the past few days in the United States, I hope we can inspire more people to find their route to support others – and help them find their own lifelong pride in “doing their bit”.
Photo credit: St. Bernard Project, Creative Commons/Flickr