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The Service Politics Institute

A New Vision for Political Action The Problem: A Growing Gap Between Young People and Politics: Recent years have seen extraordinary efforts aimed at increasing youth civic participation, particularly in the area of voting. Yet voter turnout among America’s youth continues to be among the lowest of all age groups. This reflects a general disinterest of young people toward the national political system. Only 23% of youth view volunteering for a national cause as important. But over twice as many believe that volunteering for a local cause is important.1 Young people today participate in community service at much higher rates than they vote. 40% of 18-25 year olds volunteered in the year 2002, nearly twice the number who voted that year.2 Many experts suggest that part of the reason for this disparity is widespread disenchant with the government among young people. Only half of young adults believe the government and elections can address their concerns, and less than half believe that political leaders can address their concerns.3 In fact, youth are more far more likely to express their political voices by boycotting than by voting.4 This presents a real opportunity to reach out to young people and show them that the political process can be meaningful. Creating obvious linkages between the kinds of service that young people respond to (local, community-based, concrete, hands-on) and the kind of broader civic engagement necessary for a healthy democracy (engaging in national political dialogue, voting, participating in policy-making and advocacy), can bring youth back into the fold of broader civic engagement. Young people see problems in the world, and they believe these problems can get better. Institutions that hope to engage young people in the political process must make overtures that feel genuine, accomplish something concrete, create space for open and honest dialogue about policy and political issues, and provide a mechanism to make change happen in the political sector. The Concept: Service Politics Service politics works to connect individual acts of service to a 'broader framework of social change.' The crucial part of service politics is that participants seek to impact a 'circle of influence' by raising awareness about the issue that their service addresses. Without this critical piece, 'service' cannot become 'service politics.' Service
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“The Political and Civic Engagement of Young Adults in America,” Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, March, 2002 2 “The Civic and Political Health of the Nation: A Generational Portrait,” The Pew Research center for the People and the Press, September, 2002 3 “The Political and Civic Engagement of Young Adults in America,” Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, March, 2002 4 “The Civic and Political Health of the Nation: A Generational Portrait,” The Pew Research center for the People and the Press, September, 2002
©2007 Service Politics Institute

politics is the bridge by which one can cross from specific community service to the broader spectrum of politics, where issues can be addressed on a policy level as well as a grassroots, direct service level. Service politics need not be limited to youth or students. Service politics can also reach out to other groups of traditionally disenfranchised voters- work at retirement communities can empower seniors, work at shelters can empower abused women or the homeless. Combining politics with direct service can help give a voice to sectors of our population who have recently been next to voiceless in our mainstream political communities. It can also reinvigorate the link between service providers and government. When government makes policy, particularly related to social service issues (health, education, poverty, etc) it is vital that it have direct contact with the organizations on the ground trying to provide critical services. Service politics gives members of government and candidates the opportunity to speak directly with service providers and allows the reality of social issues to directly impact the policies that try to address them. Service Politics in Practice: The Service Politics Institute The Service Politics Institute is a new organization dedicated to implementing Service Politics on a statewide level in Vermont, and with the aim of expanding to distribute the model of service politics on a national level (through trainings, publications, and web-based resources and networking). SPI works with non-profit organizations, politicians and citizens to set up cooperative community service projects which can be effectively leveraged into advocacy campaigns over specific issues. Special outreach is done to groups of citizens who have not traditionally been involved in the political process, with a focus on young people. In the SPI model, volunteers come together with policy-makers and nonprofit leaders to do community service around a specific issue (for example, paint the gym of a local Boys and Girls club.) The service project features a discussion among all participants about what the social issues are that create the need for the Boys and Girls club, and what challenges similar organizations face in their daily operations. The group then brainstorms a possible “action tank,” or a way to move forward in an advocacy role. The project is followed up by a “site tour,” where participants visit the appropriate arm of government whom they want to educate about the issue, meet with their representatives, and make their case. People are often surprised at how accessible government really is, and they feel empowered to take an active civic role in the future.

©2007 Service Politics Institute