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National service drives our nation forward: Q&A with Michael Brown and David L. Cohen

City Year Co-Founder Michael Brown spoke with David L. Cohen, senior executive vice president and chief diversity officer of Comcast Corporation and co-chair of City Year’s national Board of Trustees, about their longstanding partnership and shared reflections on the power of national service to tackle society’s biggest challenges. Both believe that programs like AmeriCorps can help the country achieve ambitious goals that benefit the economy and our communities and that are essential to City Year’s focus, such as boosting the national graduation rate to 90% over the next several years and ensuring that more students are prepared for a competitive workforce. Below are excerpts of their conversation, edited for clarity and length.

Commitment to national service

Michael Brown (MB): David, you and I have known each other for more than 30 years, and the very first conversation we had was about national service. You have been a tremendous advocate for federal funding for AmeriCorps on Capitol Hill and were instrumental in bringing City Year to Philadelphia in 1997. Where does that commitment come from, and what is your vision for what national service can and should do for this country?

David Cohen (DC): I believe in engaging with community and giving back to community. A lot of that derives from my service in municipal government, both when I worked for then-Mayor of Philadelphia Ed Rendell, and now in the several decades after that. I also recognize that government has a different role now than it did in the 1930s or the 1940s. Now is a time when government has to play a convening and a coordinating role, and there needs to be public-private partnerships to tackle our biggest challenges.

To make our country work, we need to have individuals engaged in service, whether it’s by traditional service, like signing up for the Armed Services, or more modern forms of service, like AmeriCorps, where we have Americans serving their communities in education, the environment, disaster relief and other important projects. Ultimately, it is that citizen service which empowers change, and which allows us to dream of a better life in the future.

MB: Why are you so passionate about expanding opportunity in cities?

DC: I believe that the most vibrant part of our country, the place where there is innovation and a true melting pot, where diverse populations come together to solve problems, is in urban America. Much of Comcast NBCUniversal’s corporate social responsibility program is targeted toward work in cities, and it’s clearly where a lot of my passion for City Year comes from, because that is what City Year is all about as well.

MB: Why do you believe that the private sector has a role to play in supporting national service and urban schools?

DC: For many reasons. First, the private sector directly benefits from national service and improved education systems, so it makes sense that companies such as Comcast NBCUniversal support AmeriCorps programs. Organizations that rely on national service, including City Year, Literacy Volunteers of America, and the American Red Cross, to name just a few, are designed to address some of the critical problems that our communities face — and for many urban centers, under-resourced schools are at the top of that list.

Second, federal investment in national service is, by design, highly leveraged by corporate and philanthropic dollars. The major challenges we face require all of us to pitch in. For a relatively modest investment that equals just a very small fraction of the federal budget, organizations fueled by national service match that investment dollar for dollar.

Third, national service has proven to be a wise investment. A study by economists at Columbia University found that for every federal dollar invested in AmeriCorps, society yields $3.95 in increased output and other community-wide benefits, yielding a nearly 4:1 return on investment.

MB: What skills does national service impart to AmeriCorps members that are most attractive to employers?

DC: Americans of all ages, particularly young adults, who participate in national service programs gain fantastic vocational and leadership skills through their service experience. Anyone who serves as an AmeriCorps member with an organization such as City Year is more employable and attractive to us at Comcast NBCUniversal. We know this talent pool already has many critical skills: the ability to work in diverse teams, strong communication skills, problem-solving ability, project management, and even data analysis. Young people with a service experience are mission driven and solutions oriented, and most of all, they are oriented toward service, civic participation, and leadership — three qualities all of our communities and companies need more of.

A 2017 study found that eight out of 10 AmeriCorps alumni said their service experience benefitted their career path, and nine out of 10 said their national service improved their ability to solve problems.

The corporate partnerships that many national service programs have built help to create a link between career opportunities and AmeriCorps members. We are very proud of our Comcast Career Days, when our employees bring hundreds of AmeriCorps members into our facilities for a day. They offer corps members career training, resume advice, and interview tips, helping to smooth their transition to the private sector after their service year is over.

MB: How does national service align with the needs of companies such as Comcast NBCUniversal?

DC: National service encourages employee engagement with the communities in which our employees and customers live and work, through volunteer projects with AmeriCorps members and organizations like City Year. Comcast NBCUniversal employees have had the opportunity to paint local schools and beautify parks and playgrounds, for example, and make a tangible difference for students and families. Just as important, national service is a powerful way to help meet the demand that corporate America has for extraordinarily talented entry-level young people. That’s why Comcast NBCUniversal helped to found Employers for National Service at the Corporation for National and Community Service. To date, 500 companies and organizations have signed on to recruit AmeriCorps and Peace Corps alumni for their skills and service orientation. Comcast NBCUniversal also serves as co-chair of the Voices for National Service Business Council, which was created to highlight the critical role of the private sector in advancing the national service movement.

In my view, everyone benefits from national service — communities, students, companies, local and federal governments, and of course the young adults who serve and who will one day be leading and serving our country across public, private and nonprofit sectors.

Learn more about service with City Year:

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