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Aspen Ideas Festival: Healing America through a year of service

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Panelists talk about "Healing America Through a Year of Service."
Panelists talk about "Healing America Through a Year of Service." From left to right: Elliot Gerson, Yasmeen Shaheen-McConnell, Michael Gerson, and Emily Cherniack,.
Riccardo Savi | The Aspen Institute

A program from this summer's Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado: "Healing America through a year of service." 

Could a year of service — be it military, civilian, or public service — bring people together, bridge divides, and provide a common experience?

Moderator Elliot Gerson of the Aspen Institute says many people want to know what we can do to bring the country together. He suggests that we “provide some sort of common experience, across zip codes, across ethnicities, across race, across socioeconomic status and opportunity.”

If we make service a common expectation and opportunity for all young Americans, Michael Gerson said, “it not only builds bridges, it builds citizens … We’ve got a time where disagreement has turned into contempt, and that is a very dangerous moment for the country.”

We need to realize, Gerson said, “that people who disagree with us are human. I’m skeptical that any single issue is going to bring us together, like a single cable. So I think we’re going to have to cultivate millions of ties of friendship and common purpose in this country. And I think service is one of the ways to accomplish that. “

During World War II, Elliot Gerson said, people had to work with and understand people who were different from themselves. “I think it’s no accident that the period after the war was as successful as it was socially and politically as it was.” 

The Aspen Institute launched something called The Franklin Project, which has since evolved and merged to become part of Service Year Alliance. 

Emily Cherniack said before she participated in City Year, “I didn’t feel like I had a purpose, or a connection to my country. … In City Year, I was able to learn about a mission greater than myself.”

The panelists at Aspen were:

  • Michael Gerson, a syndicated columnist at the Washington Post and a former adviser to President George W. Bush. He’s a senior adviser at ONE, a nonpartisan advocacy group committed to the fight against extreme poverty and preventable disease.

  • Yasmeen Shaheen-McConnell, the managing director of strategic engagement for Service Year Alliance, an organization chaired by retired general Stan McChrystal whose mission is to make national service a common expectation and opportunity for all young Americans. She leads the upcoming Serve America Together campaign, which aims to make national service part of growing up in America. An AmeriCorps alumna, she served as a cultural resource specialist with the Arab American Resource Corps.

  • Emily Cherniack is founder and executive director of New Politics, which she founded in 2013 to recruit and support military and national service programs alumni to run for political office, and New Politics Leadership Academy. She participated in City Year. 

  • Elliot Gerson, executive vice president of the Aspen Institute, was the moderator of the event held June 28, 2019 at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado.