Is there any way for Americans to heal our divisions and unite again around a positive, shared sense of purpose?
Considering the bitterness of the last election and its aftermath, it is easy to despair that we are irreparably torn and the future of not only our own republic but free societies everywhere is in doubt. Yet as difficult and divisive as things are today, history shows that whatever the challenge, we have always risen and joined together to meet it.
We are at our best as a nation and as individuals when we put service above self and commit to advancing the greater good. Service transcends divisions of politics, religion, race, or other differences and brings us together in the best of all possible ways. When disasters happen or people are in need, we don’t ask how they worship or who they voted for, we just step in to help. That fundamental American spirit of service is visible in countless examples every minute of every day across our land and around the world.
Yet, as vital and inspiring as service is, there is no signature physical place anywhere in our nation to honor and tell the full story of service in all its forms. Now, more than ever, we need such a place.
That is why a diverse group of volunteers, many based in the Puget Sound area, is committed to creating The National Museum and Center for Service (nmcfs.org), the first museum of its kind in the world, to be located near the National Mall in Washington, D.C. This will be a dynamic, experiential space where people of all ages and backgrounds can learn about the history of service and experience the inspiring varieties of service as it is happening in real time across the nation and the globe. Unlike typical museums that feature selected “great” leaders, artists, or historical events of the past, the NMCFS will celebrate the potential and real greatness in every person and the dignity of service as it happens every day and everywhere.
We see that spirit of service, kindness, and commitment in food bank volunteers, in front-line health care workers and researchers battling COVID-19. We see it in wildland firefighters and first responders, in teachers, in people working for social justice, helping refugees, preserving the environment, and in journalists reporting the news. We see it in government workers at every level, in Peace Corps and America Corps and other volunteers. The call to service is answered by community service organizations, religious charities, through union and corporate giving programs, among school children and the elderly, by philanthropists and foundations, and in countless other ways and places.
By celebrating all those who serve, the NMCFS will inspire visitors to realize how they have benefited from service and how they can in turn support and engage in community or national service themselves. People of all walks of life and ages will be featured, but special attention will be given to helping young people connect with existing service organizations or start new ones of their own and make a purpose-driven mindset part of their character and daily lives.
The NMCFS will also include a memorial space — a place of reflection to honor those who have given their lives in service. Among health care workers in the U.S. alone, more than 3,600 have died of COVID-19, but there is no place in the nation to honor that sacrifice or tell their stories of courage. At the NMCFS, families, loved ones, and colleagues, along with visitors, will have an opportunity to pay their respects to those who have given their all for the benefit of others.
Some may ask why we need a physical place or why this can’t be done online. The answer, as COVID-19 isolation has reminded us, is that something uniquely powerful and profound happens when we gather together and experience things in the presence of others. It is also important that such a fundamental and positive element of our national character and history receive prominent, tangible and permanent recognition in our nation’s capital.
Others may wonder if this will somehow take away from or dishonor military service. Far from it. Our nation already has countless memorials, museums and monuments to military service and wars. That is fitting, but uniformed service is not the only form of service that matters nor is it the only way that Americans commit, and sometimes give, their lives for their country. Members of the military know this well and after they leave the military many continue to serve in other ways. Surveys show that roughly 30% of veterans volunteer in some way and contribute more than 630 million hours of service annually.
The point is, we are truly all in this together and the more each of us finds ways to give back, the better off we all will be individually and as a nation. The most important and often overlooked truth about democratic republics is that they cannot survive unless voters, elected officials, and government employees at every level are motivated by the spirit of service to the greater good. Without that commitment, democratic elections easily become just another vehicle for the greedy, selfish, or power-hungry to acquire and retain power for personal gain. If selfishness defines the electorate or the elected, democracies, including ours, will inevitably perish.
If we do not tell the story of service and inspire future generations, a key part of who we have been, who we are, and who we need to become will be missing from our nation’s story and our capital city.
As with other prominent museums, making the National Museum and Center for Service a reality will require persistence, public advocacy, and strong financial support from all sources, including individual donors, foundations, corporations and, eventually, congressional backing. The investment will be well worth it.
Having a signature, designated place — a prominent uplifting museum, center, and memorial to honor all those who serve — will help heal our division and inspire future generations. It will remind Americans and the world just what has made and continues to make this nation and its people truly great.