It is maddening to get cut off while driving 70 miles per hour on the interstate. One minute, you’re tranquilly cruising down the road, and seconds later you find yourself violated by some jerk who slides into your lane just inches in front of your front bumper. Your reaction is visceral. Filled with anger you honk the horn, you mutter slursand the echoes of your frustration reverberate throughout your vehicle, frightening your children in the back seat and exacerbating the already unsafe driving conditions. But then, suddenly, you catch a glimpse of the driver who cut you off in the reflection of their rear-view mirror. They give you a smile and a wave, and suddenly your anger begins to dissipate.
Now think about any serious issue our country faces. Take the opioid epidemic for example. You obviously find the situation to be unpleasant, and hope that it resolves as quickly as humanly possible. But are you willing to take time off from work to protest outside a drug company headquarters? Are you even motivated to send a letter to your congressman or senator imploring them to prioritize this issue? The answer is “probably not” for the average American, unless of course you live in close proximity to the problem, or you have a personal connection to the issue. Because the moment that you find out that someone you know and love is in the ICU after a heroin overdose, setting up meetings with congressmen, hosting fundraisers, and otherwise raising awareness for this issue will suddenly becomes a major priority in your life.
How do these anecdotes relate to a national service program? Because they both illustrate the crisis of exposure that we have as a country, and how confronting the humanity in our fellow Americans and the problems that we face is critical to sculpting a better society.
A national service program will do two important things. First, it will give high school and college-educated students from around the country exposure to other Americans who they would not necessarily ever interact with, giving young Americans the ability to see the humanity in those that are different from them.
Second, it will give young people the opportunity to see the humanity behind the issues that our country faces. Tweeting about gun violence, the immigration crisis, the opioid epidemic or mental health isn’t going to fix anything. We need to stop looking at those who need reinforcement from society through the lenses of pictures, numbers and statistics. We must see them as the humans who are to motivate us to throw away partisan-politics and put our foot on the gas of the important change we need to see.
Social media is a major part of the problem. People surround themselves online with those who reinforce their own beliefs, and consequently live in an echo chamber. With no exposure to alternate ideas and beliefs, people’s beliefs become a critical part of their identity, and when someone attacks their beliefs, their very livelihood is at stake.
It’s time that we look past our differences and make an effort to build relationships with people who are different from ourselves. What better way to do that than to fight together for a common cause — the mission to better our country through service. Organizations like Serve America Together, and lawmakers like former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigiegand Rep. Mike Waltz of Florida are already leading the way to establish a program to bring Americans together to fight for a common cause. I would strongly encourage everyone to visit www.serveamericatogether.org, then write to their elected officials and spread the word about the potential for such a program, for the sake of our increasingly divided nation.
Jack Morningstar, a political activist from Caribou, works with Serve America Together.