In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the environmentalist Civilian Conservation Corps, one of America’s first experiments in public service (aside from the traditional routes of joining the military or running for office). Decades later, John F. Kennedy’s global Peace Corps and Lyndon B. Johnson’s domestic anti-poverty program, VISTA, followed. And later, Bill Clinton formed AmeriCorps to instill service as a core ideal. NationSwell Council member MacKenzie Moritz, chief of staff and head of partnerships at Service Year Alliance, believes that civic engagement is about to reach its apex, as more young people sign up for a year of service. NationSwell spoke to him by phone in Washington, D.C., about how 12 months of service could heal the country’s divides.
What is a service year? Who can participate, and what do they do?
A service year is an opportunity to do a year or two of full-time, paid service with a nonprofit, government or university, working to address an unmet societal need. Some of the best-known examples out there are things like the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps programs like Teach for America and City Year, and the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Our focus is really on this idea of how to provide opportunities for people to act on the responsibilities of their citizenship. [With Service Year Alliance,] we primarily focus on recruiting 18-to-28-year-olds — whether after high school, during college or after — to have this opportunity really early in life, because we think it will unlock a next level of civic engagement for the rest of their lives. Of course, they’re certainly not limited to those ages; plenty of people decide to do a service year later in life.
Why is a service year so important now?
After two years in Philadelphia, where I taught ninth-grade world history, I ended up leading Teach for America’s national recruitment strategy and technology team. At that time, we were seeing 60,000 applicants every year for 6,000 positions. There was just a tremendous interest from young people to give back, to leave their mark on society. The vast majority of people that were raising their hand to volunteer were ultimately told they weren’t a good fit. They were being rejected, only to go home and read a newspaper article about how Millennials care only about themselves. With our politics, people aren’t feeling as connected to larger systems as they had historically, leading to declining rates of social trust. We need something new that restores the fabric of our country.
What would you say to the person who thinks service years are well and good for others, but not for them?
The Franklin Project got started at Aspen Ideas Festival a couple years back, when Gen. McChrystal was asked whether he believed in the draft. He said, “I think you’re asking the wrong question. The right question is, ‘Should every young American serve?’ I think the answer to that is yes. But does the military need everyone? I think the answer is no. We need to create a lot more pathways for young people to serve.”
He went on to say that citizenship is a membership. We spend a lot of time talking about its rights, and we spend very little time talking about its responsibilities. About only 1 percent of Americans serve in the military, and frequently those are folks who come from families that have a long history of serving in the military. It’s really dangerous for us, as a country, to get into the mindset of thinking that service is someone else’s job, that it’s not a shared responsibility across all of us. Service years involve exploring your identity as a citizen.

During his time as a Teach For America Corps member, Moritz (left) brought students to a 2008 presidential debate in Philadelphia. The teens are pictured here with former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell (right)

Is there a book you’d recommend for someone who wants to understand your approach to public service?
“Heart of the Nation: Volunteering and America’s Civic Spirit,” by John Bridgeland, chair of the domestic policy council in the Bush administration during 9/11, does a really good job of providing a history of service in America and outlining a future of where we could go.
What do you wish someone had told you when you first took this role?
If I had been holding myself to the expectations I had for myself as a college graduate at 21 years old, I would not be doing any of what I’m doing today. There’s so much out there that I didn’t know existed back then. There are a lot of different levers that exist out there for changing our society. It’s very easy to fall into focusing only on the ones you know. With how fast the world is changing, there’s a lot more that are being created all the time. I hope that, 10 years from now, I’m doing something that doesn’t exist today.
What are you most proud of having accomplished?
When I was a teacher back in Philadelphia, I had the opportunity to meet a lot of amazing young people. My male students, you’d ask them what they want to do, and they’d say [play in] the NBA or the NFL. In a moment of frustration, I ended up taking a trashcan and putting it on a stool. I said, “Alright, everyone get out a piece of paper. Crumple it up. On the count of three, shoot.” Ninety-five percent of them didn’t go in. “Okay,” I said, “We need a backup plan here.”
The funny thing is that one of the students ended up playing in the NBA, which makes me look foolish, but I was right for the rest of them. The students I’m most proud of are two of the students I taught as ninth graders, who, after college, did Teach for America back in Philadelphia and now, after completing that, are staying in the classroom. It’s been such a privilege to mentor them over the years, stay in touch with them and see the cycle go all the way around. There’s just so much talent and potential in all of America’s classrooms. I got to play a small role in helping people to realize that, and I’m excited to continue to help with that through all the work that I do.
To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.
Note: Since the publication of this article, Service Year Alliance has become a NationSwell advertiser.