Editor’s Note: Pete Buttigieg is one of 10 presidential candidates taking part in a Democratic debate Tuesday, July 30, at 8:00 p.m. ET on CNN. Ten others will debate on Wednesday evening. He is the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. The views expressed are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
While I was overseas in Afghanistan, the greatest lesson I learned wasn’t about counterterrorism or geopolitics or scouting out the best food in the chow hall. It was learning to trust my life to people completely different from me. The military I belonged to drew people from all ages, racial backgrounds and regions of our country. In many ways, we had nothing in common except the fact that we were all American.
On each one of the 119 trips I took outside the wire – be it driving or guarding a vehicle – I learned what it meant to trust someone else with my life, and vice versa. The men and women who got in my vehicle didn’t care whether I was a Democrat or a Republican, or whether my father did or didn’t have papers when he immigrated here. They cared about whether my M4 was locked and loaded, and whether I had selected the route with the fewest improvised explosive device threats. They just wanted to get home safe, like I did.
It was a life-changing sense of trust in others – and one I wish more Americans had. But I don’t believe you should have to go to war in order to build that kind of trust and understanding, which is why I’m determined to knit together our social fabric through a new call to service.
At this moment, when faith in our institutions is at record lows – when social media and deepening polarization have put us into bubbles and less than 6 in 10 Americans express trust in their fellow Americans – we can’t heal our democracy unless we first heal the deep divisions between us. National service would help achieve exactly that.
First, our plan will immediately triple paid service opportunities, targeted toward America’s high school graduates, community college and vocational students. And we’ll offer those service fellows consideration for job training, hiring preferences and student debt forgiveness.
Second, we recognize that communities are where so much problem solving happens. So, I propose that the federal government support communities coming up with their own service opportunities. We’ll issue competitive grants to cities, towns and regions, which can then create a whole culture of service around the issues that matter most to their respective communities.
Third, we’ll invest in service so that by 2026 – on our nation’s 250th anniversary – we’ve created paid service opportunities for 1 million young people, all of which will be overseen by a Chief Service Officer with direct access to the Oval Office.
How many young Americans would consider joining a Community Health Corps, helping people dealing with mental health issues and addiction? How many would join an Intergenerational Corps, to serve seniors and ensure that they age well? How many would be excited to be a part of a Climate Corps, supporting first responders in the wake of disaster, weatherizing homes and building our country more sustainably?
There’s a reason that the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps and the military are all turning away far more applicants than they can accept. The desire to be useful – the hunger to contribute – is out there. We’re seeing it everywhere in this campaign.
In fact, wherever we go on the trail, we’re making a point of meeting with local service leaders in the different places we visit.
We’ll know we’ve succeeded when the first question a young person gets applying for a job or applying to college is not just “Where are you from?” but “Where did you serve? And what did you learn?”
By bringing together Americans from every walk of life, we can begin to repair the fraying fabric of our nation. We can invest in rebuilding our nation, as every dollar invested into service programs has been estimated to yield fourfold economic benefits, according to a Columbia University study. We can open up an entire new pathway for young people to meaningfully engage in their communities and in different places around the world, while building the skills to set them up for success in future careers. And we can shape a new generation of citizens, bound by mutual service, and aware of the common values that unite us as Americans.
I’m proud to issue this call to service, and I can’t wait to see Americans across the country step forward to answer it.