Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Service and the Next Generation

This post by RCA President Colin Mills was originally published in Reston Patch.

I’ve always been a political junkie.  Washington didn’t have a baseball team when I was a kid, so the Caps, Skins, and politics were my favorite local sports.  When I was 13, inspired by watching the ’92 conventions, I held my own convention in our basement, for my own “U.S. Party.”  Over the years, I’ve watched more C-SPAN than any sane person should.  And I have a collection of hundreds of campaign buttons, some dating back as far as Woodrow Wilson’s time.

Given my politics-loving bona fides, I was naturally disappointed by an article from the Atlantic that a longtime friend sent me last week.  The article suggested that the Millennial generation isn’t interested in working in politics and government.  Millennials are very service-oriented and want to make the world a better place.  But unlike previous generations, they reject the idea that public service is the way to do that.

Why aren’t they interested?  They believe that Washington is full of selfish people mired in pointless partisan battles.  They believe that politicians aren’t focused on the right priorities.  They believe that working their way up in politics or government would take too long.  And, most depressingly, they believe that political involvement doesn’t yield results.  They want to change the world, but not by running for office or serving in government.

As I said, reading this article brought me down, at least at first.  As I’ve stated before, our civic institutions only function if our citizens believe in them and are willing to participate in them.  The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington has brought out some terrific stories, and we’ve seen how the March and the civil rights movements inspired a lot of good people (like our own Senator Janet Howell) to pursue a life in public service.

And some of the beliefs expressed by the younger generation can be self-fulfilling prophecies.  If noble-minded and good people won’t run for office because they believe that politics is for the selfish and the corrupt, then eventually the only candidates we have will be selfish and corrupt.  If this idealistic and service-minded generation can’t reverse that trend, who can?

But then I read the article again, and I was inspired by a different idea.  Millennials may not be interested in “public service” as we’ve traditionally defined it, but they are interested in serving the public in different ways.  One professor suggests that once the younger generation rises to prominence, government may “evolve into a mere ‘platform’ that creates room for groups of citizens to do start-up ad-hoc projects or for small government groups to provide services in a coordinated manner.”

Once I noticed that sentence, my ears perked up.  Because “groups of citizens [doing] start-up ad-hoc projects” describes exactly what we’re doing at RCA.  We might just be the wave of the future!

If you think about it, organizations like RCA are perfectly tailored to the kind of service that the Millennial generation wants to provide.  They’re interested in community service and making the world a better place; RCA is composed of citizens who are serving toward making Reston a better place and ensuring that we remain a special community in the future.  They’re interested in working outside the system; RCA works outside the system.  They don’t want to get caught up in partisan trench warfare; RCA is a non-partisan organization whose only interest is discovering creative solutions to Reston’s issues.  They want to be able to start projects from the ground up and pursue multiple interests; RCA has the flexibility to move from issue to issue as the community’s priorities change, and we’re always open to taking on new issues and initiatives.  They don’t want to spend years climbing up some bureaucratic hierarchy; RCA is a grass-roots organization where anyone who’s smart, committed, and willing to work can take on an important role right away.

And just as young do-gooders could benefit from signing on with a group like RCA, so too can RCA and other organizations benefit from Millennials being involved.  As I’ve mentioned previously, the pioneer generation of Restonians, which has done so much to shape Reston’s character and community, is getting ready to step aside.  They’re prepared to hand off the torch, if there’s someone who will pick it up.  The energy that young people provide gives a real boost to an organization.  Also, younger people tend to be more tech-savvy, and they can help with the perennial problem of finding effective and cost-effective ways to reach the citizens.

Perhaps most importantly, young people can bring the fresh perspectives that can help us see new solutions to our community’s problems.  We’re facing crucial questions now about how our community will be planned and organized for decades to come.  We need to figure out how we’re going to get people to, from, and around Reston.  We need to set priorities for what services and amenities we will provide in an age of scarce resources.  We need to set the balance between the growth and development needed to make Reston vibrant with the open spaces and infrastructure needed to make it livable.  We need to decide whether it’s time for Reston to become a town, or a city, or some other form of government.

There’s a lot going on, and the best solutions may well be things we haven’t even imagined yet.  We need some new voices at the table to help us find those solutions.  And who better than the can-do, well-educated, idealistic Millennials to be those new voices?

I became involved with RCA because I love Reston, and I really want to make a difference in the community.  I want to make changes that I can see, and get results that have a real benefit right here where I live.  I think a lot of Millennials feel the same way, and I’m looking forward to working with them as we revitalize – and reinvent – both our civic organizations and our community.

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