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Celebrating and Expanding on JFK's Legacy of Citizen Service

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

At a panel celebrating President Kennedy's centennial, leaders emphasized the potential of national service to solve problems and bring people together.

Rob Gordon, Dorothy Stoneman, and John Bridgeland

Written for Tisch College by Jess Blough, A21

On November 2nd, the Tisch College Distinguished Speaker Series partnered with the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, FOCUS, and the Tufts Leonard Carmichael Society to host “JFK's Legacy of Citizen Service,” a three-member panel featuring Rob Gordon, Dorothy Stoneman, and John Bridgeland. The panel focused on the importance of involving young people in service, stressing the role of organizations like the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps.

The panel began with opening remarks by Tisch College Dean Alan D. Solomont, who commented on the responsibility of places like Tufts University to “nurture a culture of service in which we do what we can for our country.”

Following Solomont, moderator and Tisch College Associate Dean for Programs and Administration Diane Ryan posed her first question to the panelists, regarding the necessity of national service, as well as the impact of youth in national service. Bridgeland, the Vice Chair of Service Year Alliance and founding director of USA Freedom Corps, began the conversation, stressing the ability of programs like the Peace Corps to change the international perception of the United States and, as a result, promote peace.

“We’re ripping ourselves apart in this country - our lack of trust, the divisions across politics and religion, the Muslim ban, the view of Americans abroad. I can’t think of a better time for the Peace Corps to be expanding,” Bridgeland said.

Stoneman, the founder of YouthBuild and recipient of the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, focused her response on the role of national service in fulfilling the basic human desire to aid others, though this desire is often contradictory to societal messaging about the importance of self-advancement: “The counter message of national service is absolutely essential to our survival. We have to have ways to allow young people to connect with that part of themselves that gives them such great satisfaction.”

Stoneman also emphasized empathy as a result of service. “Getting into a completely different community, embedding themselves there and experiencing what people see and know and experience there, changes your worldview. Everyone who has grown up in a privileged context should seize the opportunity to put themselves into a different context and do everything in their power to pull their resources and their expertise and their knowledge to support the people at the local level who haven’t had that,” Stoneman stated.

Ryan’s next question, posed to Bridgeland and Gordon, regarded the role of the Presidential Administration in promoting national service, specifically the role that the current administration should take. Again, the topic switched to empathy, with Gordon, the president of Be the Change, Inc., quoting a saying he had picked up at CityYear in South Africa, “I only know I’m human when I’m connecting to other humans. I find my humanity through other human beings.”

“When you get a strong presidential team that’s focused on commanding human-centric approaches to problems and opportunities, it is a great power here in the United States,” Gordon continued.

Ryan then directed her attention back to Stoneman, reflecting on Stoneman’s experience with millennials and their potential to impact policy making and democracy. Citing millennials’ aversion to politics, Stoneman implored students and young people to recognize that, “The change that we want to see in the world is not going to happen only with what we do with our hands - it’s going to happen with what we do with policy, what we do with culture, our values, what values are dominating the creation of policy.”

The guided conversation ended on the topic of compulsory service, which, all panelists agreed, they did not support. However, Bridgeland elaborated on potential future service programs where more people could have access to service opportunities, students could gain credit for service work, and the US would develop a cultural expectation of service.

The conversation then shifted to a time of audience questions, the first concerning the relationship between service and social justice. Again, the panelists stressed the role of intentional human interaction in service, as well as the necessity of activism in service, as opposed to passivism.

Gordon complemented institutions like Tufts University that allow students “to use these social settings, not only academic settings, to energize each other around service and connecting to those who have been doing this for a long time… Being that sort of activist in service and having the courage to carry it forward, I think that’s key.”

The final audience question focused on how to interrupt the conventional path of young people, from high school to college to a job, to integrate service—as Tisch College already does through the Tufts 1+4 Bridge-Year Service Learning Program. In response to this question, Stoneman urged students to redefine the notion of privilege from wealth to service. “What are we really privileged to do? When you talk to parents and relatives and friends, the kinds of things they do at their job, are they really satisfied at the end of the day by the kinds of things they do during this really short life journey? I think you all can redefine this notion of privilege very differently and include service in that new definition.”