National Service as a Tool for Racial and Social Justice

Ideas and Issues

New Orleans   Talking to Max Klau, the chief program office for the New Politics Leadership Academy, about his new book, Race and Social Change:  A Quest, A Study, A Call to Action on Wade’s World, I was struck that I was learning about veteran and contemporary programs that, frankly, I just had never heard about before.  Mine was a smaller epiphany than Klau describes in his book, when as a younger psychology researcher he witnessed “separation game” at a Camp Anytown session that changed the trajectory of his life and study, and eventually focused his lifetime work.

Maybe you’re in the same boat where I was floating, so let me explain a bit.  Camp Anytown is a youth leadership training experience that has been run for more than sixty years around the country by various branches of the National Conference for Community and Justice, a nonprofit formerly known as the National Conference of Christians and Jews.  The programs, much like the conference itself, is focused on the inarguable core belief that if we know each other better and share time and experience, we are less likely to live with prejudice and bias.  Camp Anyone picks diverse teens and, depending on the locality, runs the camp for three, six or a similar number of days.

One of the more dynamic and perhaps controversial parts of the camps is playing the “separation game” towards the end of the experience.  The separation game, as described by Klau, begins by dividing the youngsters up by race and ethnicity.  The whites eat first with unlimited seconds, and on down the line in the dining halls until the African-Americans end up eating almost nothing and having to sit on the floor.  Over several exercises along these lines like whites watching videos while blacks do cleanup, young people then come together to discuss how race and ethnicity create divisions and discriminatory obstacles.  You get the basic idea.  Some embrace the experience as a microcosm of our society, while some others see it as manipulative.

Klau’s epiphany convinced him that the more opposites are combined, the more they will attract rather than repel, contributing mightily to the strength of our society and democracy.  He also details how this personal insight was cemented by a decade working with City Year, a program begun in Boston and now part of AmeriCorps, part of the US federal voluntary experiential service opportunity offering that includes armed service, VISTA, the Peace Corps, and similar options.  City Year places teams of young folks into city schools to assist in learning experiences.

All of which has led Klau to advocate that a cure for our current national divisions would be a mandatory year of national service.  Though tainted by the mandatory military draft ended after the Vietnam War, this is not a new idea.  Certainly, it was advocated by former President Bill Clinton, and Klau says several of the latest crop of Democratic primary aspirants have said they support some version of this as well.

It’s hard to argue that a shared and unifying national experience wouldn’t be good for Americans now.  It’s equally hard to handicap the odds for a mandatory year of national service becoming reality.  National service may be like some of the programs and organizations like these that have hunkered down to do their part, unheralded, and little known, but able to continue to implement and promote ideas that also won’t die.