A bipartisan, working blueprint for the future from David Eisner and John Gomperts
Now is the moment to help the national service and bridgebuilding communities work together in equipping our communities to connect and collaborate across our polarized differences.
In this working paper, we map out how national service can focus its unique assets and energies on helping communities bridge divides, especially divides driven by conflicting ideological, cultural, or political perspectives.
Thank you for reading this working paper. We hope you are doing so because of your interest in and questions about the possibilities for national service to embrace a bridgebuilding agenda in helping our communities resolve our national crisis of civic distrust and dysfunction. This is new ground for most of us – even those of us with deep experience in the service and bridgebuilding worlds are unused to bringing them together with intentionality. So, while we approach this work with optimism, we also lean into humility and are eager for the ideas advanced in this working paper to be examined, debated, refined, and tested.
We share an enthusiasm for the power and potential of national service, and we passionately believe that national service makes its best, most consequential contribution, and best meets its purpose, when it takes on the nation’s greatest challenges. We also share grave concern about Americans’ waning ability to live peaceably together and to successfully tackle our common challenges in our increasingly polarized communities and nation. All of which sparked for us the question:
How can national service help build bridges across polarized lines of difference, increasing trust and collaboration across our divides, and expanding successful pilot projects already underway?
With support from Einhorn Collaborative and Schmidt Futures, we have taken a deep dive into answering this question. Among the most exciting parts of this exploration was learning more about some of the very early-stage, promising partnerships, state-level pilots, and local programs through which national service participants (Corps members) are – or will soon be – building connections across divisions marked by distrust and disdain.
From this exploration we emerge with the conviction that national service has a crucial role to play in helping America and Americans get better at the mindsets, skills, and practice of connecting and working together across our differences. In fact, we believe that national service explicitly taking up the challenges of divisiveness and polarization in our communities represents not just an opportunity but an imperative. Embracing bridgebuilding as a more intentional goal of national service is not only vital for the health of our communities and the nation – it’s also vital for national service to flourish, and vital for the bridgebuilding movement to grow and scale.
We’ve organized this working paper around five proposals that we believe will advance and accelerate national service’s contribution to building connection, trust, and understanding among people from different backgrounds, experiences, perspectives, and values.
Specifically, we recommend:
1. Certify all Corps members in “Civic CPR” – that is, equip them to connect across conflict, collaborate, and become lifelong bridgebuilders.
2. Increase viewpoint diversity across the national service ecosystem, including among programs and Corps members.
3. Build strong, two-way bridges between the national service and bridgebuilding communities.
4. Equip AmeriCorps alums to help build civic bridges all across America.
5. Accelerate research on bridgebuilding through service.
We elaborate on each of these recommendations in the following pages. We also propose menus of specific activities that could move these recommendations toward fruition, tailored to key players in the national service and bridgebuilding ecosystems.
As America’s civic crisis continues to simmer and become normalized, there is little time to waste in helping the national service and bridgebuilding communities work together in equipping our communities to connect and collaborate across our polarized differences. Through No Greater Mission, we seek to add another turn of the crank: calling attention to good work already underway; making specific and actionable recommendations to advance and accelerate the thinking, planning and practice around this work; and catalyzing additional conversations, connections, innovations, and action across the national service and bridgebuilding ecosystems.
Please let us know how the ideas in this working paper strike you. We encourage you to engage in and contribute to an ongoing conversation on a dedicated site about national service and bridging hosted on Convergence’s website. We look forward to highlighting responses and the conversations they generate. We are curious to receive and share your thoughts and suggestions, your extensions and improvements to the ideas presented here, and any experiences or lessons you’re holding that can add to our collective knowledge.
It will take strong engagement – and some difficult conversations – within and across the national service and bridgebuilding communities, but, together, we can help AmeriCorps prioritize and succeed with incorporating bridgebuilding within the purpose, activity, and outcome of national service.
AmeriCorps provides many hundreds of millions of dollars of federal funding to nonprofits to recruit Corps members for focused and sustained service, Although not nearly as large, other federal agencies also run national service programs like FEMA Corps, teacher corps, YouthBuild, and US Parks Service Corps, while still other programs run by faith-based organizations, education institutions, individual states and others offer very similar experiences without federal support for all or some of their Corps members.
This paper commonly refers to AmeriCorps because it is the largest actor in this space by far, and its mandate is to support American service and volunteering even beyond the programs it funds. We believe that the recommendations in this paper can apply to national service programs outside the ambit of AmeriCorps.
Bridgebuilding programs help people divided by conflict or viewpoint differences increase their mutual trust and understanding by bringing them together in safe environments, often in service of solving common problems. Effective bridging is evidence-based and requires no compromise of one’s own or validation of other’s beliefs—only a willingness to listen with curiosity.
The Bridging Movement Alignment Council (BMAC), a collective of bridging leaders focused on accelerating growth of the movement, summarizes the work:
“We bring Americans together across divides to listen and understand each other, to find common ground, and to normalize bridgebuilding behavior in society.”
Both the national service and bridgebuilding ecosystems include a wide range of practitioners, volunteers/service participants, public and private funding, specialized research, and policymaking. National service’ ecosystem also includes the federal agencies, governors’ service commissions and Corps members and alums. The bridgebuilding ecosystem extends to a rapidly growing number of public, private, and nonprofit initiatives that use evidence-based bridging and collaborative approaches to connect people across their divides where they work, worship, study, play, serve, and socialize.
We come from different sides of the aisle. David is a Republican; John a Democrat. Friends for over 25 years, we have each served in senior positions for Members of Congress and served Presidents of our parties at the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). Not surprisingly, we have big disagreements about politics and policies. But we also have multiple areas of passionate agreement, including two that animate this working paper.
First, we believe that helping Americans connect across divisions couldn’t be more urgent as we struggle with toxic polarization. Far beyond normal political disagreements, polarization has brought America new and rising levels of disdain, distrust, dysfunction, and violence. Among the many frightening statistics that reinforce our conclusion, here are some perspectives Americans across the political spectrum are expressing:
87% say toxic polarization is a threat to America
70% say polarization is preventing America from solving its problems
70% say the country is at risk of failing
20% say people from the other party lack characteristics to be “human”
All of that makes it harder and harder for us to solve big problems, erodes confidence in our political system, severs attachment to our country, and worsens our individual and collective mental health.
Second, we believe national service is perfectly positioned to make a substantial contribution to tackling toxic polarization and bringing our communities together if it retools to embrace this charge with focus and intentionality. At its 30th anniversary, AmeriCorps has much to celebrate in terms of work accomplished, challenges met, lives improved, America’s service ethos advanced, and the fact that well over one million people have served. It’s a remarkable record for one of America’s most remarkable civic experiments.
Yet, to us, even these impressive accomplishments don’t live up to the full potential of national service to strengthen and invigorate our communities and nation. National service was created to take on the country’s biggest challenges, and right now that means national service programs (including AmeriCorps) must intentionally incorporate efforts to reduce toxic polarization as a key part of their work.
Domestic and international experts emphasize that Americans can’t meaningfully confront polarization until we connect across difference where we work, study, worship, play, and serve. National service — especially the mission, reach, and infrastructure of AmeriCorps — offers the most immediately deployable and most economical capacity to accomplish that.
At the same time, by supporting bridgebuilding, national service can help turn back the tides of divisiveness and distrust in our communities, offering the scope of benefit to the country that the program was built to deliver.
We’ve seen vivid demonstrations of AmeriCorps’ unique capability to support civic bridgebuilding in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters. Katrina was AmeriCorps’s most challenging and finest moment. AmeriCorps programs around the country sent tens of thousands of volunteers to Louisiana and Mississippi to help devastated, traumatized communities rebuild. Across the liberal city of New Orleans and conservative rural towns, AmeriCorps members engaged, by necessity and with great results, in serving with individuals and groups bringing wildly disparate backgrounds and perspectives to achieve the common goal of restoring normal life in the Gulf.
If AmeriCorps can respond effectively to our current Category 5 civic hurricane, we believe that will also help address many issues that have vexed AmeriCorps for decades. Rising to this urgent national challenge would:
No surprise, then, that we’ve arrived at this conclusion: Fully engaging our national service capacity to meet our communities’ civic bridgebuilding needs represents an imperative for the country, for national service and for bridgebuilders. Not an opportunity… Not a promising-but-optional pathway… An imperative. Now is the time to bring all of AmeriCorps’s reach, infrastructure, and promise to bear on helping to reduce harmful divisiveness in our communities, building civic pathways for healing, and igniting a sense of common purpose.
To produce this Working Paper, we interviewed 70 leaders and practitioners in national service, military service, civic bridgebuilding, democracy, international peacebuilding and violence prevention, psychology, and brain science. We spoke with experts with esteemed degrees; practitioners with a lifetime of frontline experience; and leaders and youth (not always different!) who are not currently part of national service but hope to engage. For a list of interviewees, please see Appendix 2: Interviewees.
From all these conversations, we emerged with some key takeaways:
Throughout this work, we stayed grounded in the AmeriCorps’ purpose, “We Are Uniting People through Service,” and the Agency’s assertion of this priority: “We bridge divides by bringing people together; connecting individuals and organizations to help communities tackle their toughest challenges. Many leaders in the bridgebuilding field see AmeriCorps as a powerful natural ally in building civic bridge because of these commitments and because of important characteristics of the program:
Over and over again, we heard about the benefits of Corps members bridging divides not only to America, and not only to the Corps members but to the national service and bridgebuilding fields themselves. We also spent a good deal of time asking questions about the nuanced but important shifts that leaders in both communities believe they must make in order to maximize the results of this work in both building civic bridges and strengthening service impacts.
We hope that actors across the bridging and service ecosystems will see a good number of these recommendations as sufficiently specific and actionable that they will choose to adopt or adapt them to increase AmeriCorps’ and other national service programs’ contribution to building bridges across lines of difference.
Our interviews strongly reinforced something we already knew: that these recommendations are only one part of a larger conversation among policymakers, leaders in the service and bridgebuilding movements at the national, state, and local levels, researchers, private funders, and members of communities across the country – all seeking ways to reduce tensions and foster the conditions for collaborative problem-solving. We look forward to further discussions and debates that will advance this work.
Before presenting the detailed recommendations and action steps, the paper does some level-setting, reviewing key assumptions about the roots and distortions of toxic polarization, as well as the theory and practice driving the fast-growing bridgebuilding field. With that backdrop, we present and explain our core proposals, building out the actor-specific action steps to advance them. Finally, we share why we believe that national service has a big role to play and can succeed as well as some caveats that emerged through our exploration and that need to be kept in mind in order for this work to succeed.
#CaliforniansForAll College Corps members from California State University, Monterey Bay, pictured here, are part of the first-of-its-kind initiative launched in partnership with California colleges and universities to create debt-free pathways to college while engaging students across the state in solving problems in their communities. College Corps engaged over 3,000 students in its first year, and, notably, is being intentional and explicit about helping participants development and practice bridging skills as a core part of their service experience.
America’s growing polarization is a result of our human responses to two incitements. First, many people are experiencing fear, uncertainty, and powerlessness in the face of rapid and tectonic shifts in technology, our economy, our demographic makeup, our cultural mores, and more. Second, “conflict entrepreneurs,” especially from the worlds of politics and the media, are exploiting our fear and sense of powerlessness; they are funneling billions of dollars into products, communications, platforms, and campaigns that exacerbate our divides, distrust, and anger in order to generate eyeballs, clicks, and votes.
Fears that our families and our sacred values are under threat, that our needs are going unheard, and that those with power don’t care about us trigger our bodies and brains to seek the comfort and protection of insular groups and social and information bubbles. This behavior is predictable and well-documented in psychology, brain science, and international peace- and democracy-building. Charged by feelings of threat and fear — and goaded by feeling disrespected by other groups that are also acting out their fears — we shout-down and demonize people in those other groups. Polarization normalizes the attitudes and behaviors that emerge from the resulting loop of mutual enmity and disparagement.
In this context, it can be particularly risky for the person who violates their group’s norms by reaching out with curiosity, generosity, or respect to someone in an “opposing” group. We often reserve our most hurtful and polarized attacks for the members of our own groups who try to moderate conflicts with others. And fear of attack by our own can be even more destabilizing than fear of being attacked by outsiders.
Whether we come from the left or the right, when we retreat to our self-protective information and social bubbles, self-sorting by geography, media consumption habits, and cultural markers. As a result of this sorting, we often stop seeing the complexities and nuances in issues we care about. We engage in binary thinking. Everything becomes black and white and has sharp edges. It’s simply us and them, all right or all wrong.
Research highlights the ways in which our brains fall prey to multiple highly consequential distortions:
We dramatically overestimate differences. We incorrectly assume that those from other groups hold views far more antithetical to our own than they actually are. Multiple studies confirm that our positions are much closer than we very firmly believe.
We misattribute motives. We become certain that our group acts out of positive motives like love, insight or wisdom, while those with opposing positions act out of hate, vengeance, or malice.
We moralize. We believe intensely that our opponents are acting immorally — even illegally — and are destroying sacred values.
We feel disdain. We experience the visceral feeling that our opponents are unfathomably, disgustingly alien, and “less than,” which undermines our capacity for humility, generosity, and curiosity.
We disbelieve facts that contradict our polarized perceptions. Although people on all sides of our divides believe that the other side would understand their error “if only” someone would present them with this or that fact, research demonstrates how confirmation bias makes virtually all of us immune to facts supporting the position of those we disdain.
Together, these distortions make empathy and trust exceptionally difficult. The insidious distortions of polarization obscure the fundamental reality that we are all striving to achieve the same basic elements of living with dignity: physical safety and economic security; a sense of belonging and purpose; success and fulfillment for ourselves and our families; fair treatment from individuals and institutions.
The scientific evidence makes clear that none of us can easily see or feel these distortions in our own perceptions unless we slow down and interrogate the underlying assumptions in our thinking. Like the pressure of our atmosphere or the weight of gravity, polarization acts on each of us invisibly and consequentially. Ironically, the more education we have, the more certain we may be of these distortions, and the more difficult it can be to reexamine our perceptions. We mention this here because we recognize that those of us fighting against polarization are just as likely as anyone else to fall prey to its distortions.
Even in the face of these strong polarizing headwinds, evidence suggests that we are indeed capable of equipping ourselves and others to break down these distortions. Seventy years of research affirms that we can reduce prejudices, distortions, and provocative behavior simply by being, as the researchers say, “in proximity,” with others – in safe settings where we get to know and understand each other as individuals, often working together toward a shared goal. We can find common ground even if none of us change any belief or position.
This research, in combination with recent partisan gridlock and the latent demand from America’s frustrated majority, has spurred the rapid growth of a new field devoted to bringing Americans together across our differences. Thousands of young bridgebuilding organizations and initiatives are working hard today to lower the heat, strengthen cohesion and foster resilience in our communities and society wide.
The rapid growth of this bridgebuilding field and its evidence base creates new capacity and infrastructure for equipping national service to bring Americans together and collaboratively solve common problems at a scale that is, so far, unprecedented in America. In hundreds of communities across the country, bridging organizations can offer the tools, resources and expertise that service organizations need if they seek to engage their Corps members in connecting across differences.
Photo Credit: AmeriCorps. CoGenerate brings together older and younger generations to work on shared challenges that are felt by both generations, e.g., like food insecurity, isolation, and loneliness. Pictured here an AmeriCorps Senior and AmeriCorps Member work side-by-side in the kitchen on a project supported by a CoGenerate Generations Serving Together grant. This photo of Generations Serving Together, an initiative of CoGenerate, showcases new and powerful models of older and younger AmeriCorps members and AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers working side by side to serve the community.
Bridgebuilding organizations bring people together to accomplish different goals, work among different groups and communities, and using different models. This work includes:
Even though these models and interventions can be quite different, most of these diverse programs nevertheless share several core premises about effective, best-practice and evidence-based bridgebuilding. First, bridgers believe – based on scientific evidence – that people have as much innate capacity to join together as to become polarized: yes, people are hardwired to retreat to their corners in the face of fear and uncertainty, but we are also hardwired to crave connection. Bridgebuilding interventions create multiple opportunities and onramps to fulfill that craving without triggering the fear or alienation that drives polarization.
In addition, bridgers lean on decades of research and international experience that predict high levels of success for bridgebuilding experiences that equip all participants to:
That research and international experience in bridging differences, democracy-building, and violence prevention has also taught bridgebuilders what does NOT work. For example, we know that if the venue does not feel safe for all participants to share their viewpoints the intervention can’t work. Likewise, the needs or preferences of select participants can’t take precedence over the needs of other participants. Care must also be taken to level power imbalances between participants within the context of efforts to collaborate.
Finally, bridgebuilders believe that their work is not fundamentally about increasing civility, as critics will sometimes misstate. Civility is performative and only loosely connected to transforming relationships; sometimes a focus on civility can even be counter-productive, because it can take the unhelpful form of papering over difficult conversations or of telling people who are injured that they can’t be angry. Building bridges across difference, on the other hand, is about the kind of relational transformation that acknowledges difficulty and emotions and that drives ongoing change, community resilience and problem-solving capacity by allowing opposing groups to come together in an environment of increased trust, understanding, and sense of belonging. Bridgebuilding is not about asking people to “be nice.”
AmeriCorps CEO Michael Smith (center) has made bridging divides a high priority for AmeriCorps in the current Administration. Here Smith joins representatives from Team Up, a partnership among Interfaith America (initiative leader), Habitat for Humanity, YMCA, and Catholic Charities to pilot bridgebuilding training and programming as part of their service delivery.
The Bridging Movement Alignment Council (BMAC) has established evidence and data-driven goals, measures, and many best practices in the work of building civic bridges across polarized differences in perspectives and beliefs. BMAC sees bridgebuilding work as having three tiers of goals:
BMAC, with support from Civic Health Project and New Pluralists, released the Social Cohesion Impact Measure (SCIM), a before-and-after survey instrument that any organization implementing a bridging program can use and adapt. Dozens of organizations are currently using it. Using validated questions, the tool scientifically measures the impact of bridgebuilding programs in loosening polarization’s grip on individuals, including impact on, among other things:
Because bridgebuilding can bring many different types of people and groups together across a variety of differences, one of the first questions to arise for any program will be: across what kinds of differences are we bridgebuilding?
We find it useful to imagine a continuum along which the difficulty of bridging increases in direct correlation with increasing levels of divisiveness and disdain between groups. On one end of the continuum are “short bridges,” efforts to build bridges among people with different experiences and backgrounds, different socio-economic backgrounds, and life experience – yet, who nevertheless see themselves as allies, mostly share a worldview, and are eager to connect more meaningfully and build greater understanding of each other. Participants in “short bridging” are separated by distance but not disdain, difference but not distrust – in other words they do not experience fear of imminent threat from other’s positions or beliefs and won’t dehumanize or villainize each other.
On the other end of the continuum are “long bridges,” where participants are divided by disdain, dehumanization and the other most toxic and insidious distortions of polarization. “Long bridges” are essential to resolving the very strong political polarization we’re currently experiencing. As practitioners work to connect people and groups across increasingly “long bridges,” they will be required to navigate increasingly challenging hurdles – especially responding to polarized participants’ expectations around preconditions, venue and psychological safety, respect by other participants, power imbalances, fears that one’s needs won’t be considered, and more.
And, by the way, when we say “long bridges,” we do not mean all the way to the end of the continuum. Although a very small number of bridgebuilding programs effectively connect with groups that are the most extreme, hate-based, and-or anti-democratic (E.g., KKK, neo-Nazis, Antifa, etc.), this difficult work would not be appropriate for national service participants. National service programs are well advised to stop far short of this intense and high-stakes and potentially dangerous form of bridgebuilding.
Almost all AmeriCorps grantee organizations and Corps members are equipped to and enthusiastic about traversing “short bridges” across non-polarized differences. And, when done right, equipping Corps members to achieve increased connections and understanding across “short bridges” will help develop mindsets and skills that are transferable to and supportive of “long bridge” work.
Programs building “short bridges” should, however, keep in mind that strengthening “short bridges” can often spur greater polarization as connections and relationships between people of similar viewpoints can inspire or even become founded on common disdain for others who are different or disagree with them. This counterproductive outcome will require active and intentional efforts to avoid.
Do we need to make a binary choice between pursuing justice, especially racial equity, and building civic bridges? In the justice community, there are those who see bridgebuilding across political or ideological lines either as a naïve distraction from a more important agenda or, worse, as an invitation to defenders of the status quo to slow down progress. On the other hand, some in the bridgebuilding community believe America can’t make effective and sustainable strides to undo injustice – or succeed with any important problem-solving – until we first succeed in building greater social cohesion.
We note that distrust between those fighting toxic polarization and those focusing on fighting injustice has perpetuated and, ironically, polarized what should serve as a productive tension.
Nevertheless, we are skeptical of binary viewpoints and believe a binary framework is particularly counterproductive at this moment, facing our current crop of challenges. It will not work for America to slow or pause in either improving and saving lives by pursuing justice or in backing America away from the brink of catastrophic conflict.
For AmeriCorps, these tensions will add complexity as the agency, states, grantee networks, funders and bridgebuilder organizations discuss and act around: training corps members to reach across differences; increasing viewpoint diversity among grantees and corps members; incorporating civic bridgebuilding into competitive grantmaking; prioritizing research and evaluation required to increase the effectiveness and scalability of AmeriCorps’ bridgebuilding.
As a small number of important but early-stage experiments move forward at the national, state, and local levels, many are asking the question: How can national service and the bridgebuilding community bolster this work and help build bridges across polarized lines of difference, increasing trust and collaboration across our divides?
Below, five actionable recommendations are meant to serve as a partial answer, and to open a generative conversation refining these ideas, engaging new people and developing new answers.
We close the recommendation section by putting forward suggestions about what specific actors in the national service and bridging ecosystems can do. Then, the paper concludes with our reasons for optimism, and to counterbalance that optimism, a set of caveats about why acting on these recommendations might be difficult. Even with these cautionary notes, our hope is that all interested parties across the national service and bridgebuilding ecosystems can find resonant and relevant entry points for further engagement and action
In the same way that all lifeguards learn how to perform CPR, all Corps members should learn “Civic CPR”— the basic mindsets and skills necessary for connecting across difference — and earn a certification for doing so.
As a result, all Corps members would emerge from their service experience with greater listening and collaboration skills; the self-awareness to recognize bias; sufficient emotional self-regulation to engage with people with whom they disagree; and a mindset that seeks opportunities for building trust, even in unlikely circumstances.
The skills that are vital for building civic bridges are the same skills required for effective collaboration, teamwork, and conflict management in many other settings, from the workplace to community to family life. We believe this Civic CPR will help equip Corps members to achieve success and happiness as well as to become mainstays of local civic infrastructure. Likewise, we are hopeful that the Civic CPR certification would meaningfully boost Corps members’ post-service job qualifications and opportunities.
We know that most AmeriCorps programs currently offer some opportunities for Corps members to experience and practice bridgebuilding. Some programs might be able to offer nothing more than basic Civic CPR. These would be programs with Corps-member cohorts that are mostly homogenous and where Corps members serve within communities and groups whose backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives are similar to the Corps members’.
Other programs, such as those whose teams hold a diversity of viewpoints and/or those who serve in communities with different perspectives than Corps members, have an opportunity to go deeper on bridgebuilding. Where connecting across differences is more central to success, programs might offer Corps members more advanced versions of Civic CPR as well as more extensive opportunities to practice those skills experientially.
We also recommend investing in opportunities for Corps members to participate in supplemental activities through which they might bridge across longer divides, with an emphasis on experiencing and practicing bridgebuilding across polarized perspectives. We see this idea of supplemental activities as particularly promising and an area ripe for accelerated innovation, experimentation, and learning.
How to put this recommendation into action within the service experience:
We see big opportunities for supplemental activities – bridging beyond the core service experience:
About 15 years ago, national service participants were disproportionately wealthy and privileged. Since then, both AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps have instituted recruiting efforts focused on engaging people from a broad range of different backgrounds and circumstances, with a special emphasis on recruiting people of color and “opportunity youth.” Individual national service programs have made similar efforts to good effect. This success in expanding the profile of national service participants demonstrates that, with real and sustained focus, AmeriCorps and other national service programs can significantly influence the make-up of the Corps.
With that success in mind, we note that to date, AmeriCorps has struggled to engage participants and programs that represent the full range of political or ideological viewpoints. The fact that viewpoint diversity has been limited has contributed to shrinking the pool of prospective Corps members and grantees as well as AmeriCorps’ roster of champions and supporters. Even if America’s polarization crisis makes it more difficult, we must find ways to engage more applicants, programs, and funders from across the political spectrum.
We’ve always experienced the challenge of viewpoint diversity to be a chicken-or-egg dilemma. Without viewpoint diversity, it’s difficult to be welcoming to all the prospective programs and Corps members we wish would apply. And without those people and programs connecting with the programs, it’s difficult to build enough viewpoint diversity to be welcoming.
Now is the moment to break the cycle. The crisis of polarization is broadly recognized as a top-level concern by leaders in all sectors, civic organizations, and young people of all stripes and beliefs. We see a timely and unique opportunity for added emphasis and intentionality around bridgebuilding to attract and welcome grantees and Corps members who span a broader spectrum of viewpoints than national service has ever enjoyed.
How to put this recommendation into action:
The national service and bridgebuilding ecosystems would each benefit from collaborating with the other at the national, state, and local levels. New connections between these worlds would generate a wide range of opportunities for both platforms. Some of these are easy to imagine and others will emerge more organically. Certainly, these connections will increase participation in and the quality of both service and bridgebuilding and will accelerate shared learning.
How to put this recommendation into action:
While some notable AmeriCorps grantees do a terrific job engaging their alumni, the broader AmeriCorps ecosystem has historically underinvested in its alumni. With greater investment, former AmeriCorps members could become powerful civic assets, just like military veterans and Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. Investing in the ongoing development, support, and engagement of AmeriCorps alums will not only strengthen the program itself; it can make AmeriCorps alums an especially valuable resource for strengthening and scaling the work of bridgebuilding and resilience-building in communities across the country.
How to put this recommendation into action:
We could not be more confident in the profound opportunity that exists for national service participants to combat divisiveness, distrust, and disdain at the community level. And yet we also know that we are still in the early stages of demonstrating what we all think is obvious. We need more research, data, and understanding to refine this work for maximum impact in the long run.
Effective research will be the key to improving and scaling different interventions. We hope that over the course of a few years the ideas associated with national service and bridgebuilding can climb the ladder from evidence-informed to evidence-based to proven.
How to put this recommendation into action:
The purpose of this No Greater Mission venture is to catalyze further conversation and action around a big commitment by national service to prioritize connecting across difference as a central objective, activity, and outcome of national service. Of course, change like this is not linear, and we obviously cannot map out exactly how this change will occur. We do know that it will take contributions from various actors and angles. Accordingly, we offer a few suggestions about who can do what to accelerate the action that is already beginning to happen in this space.
National service brings distinctive and valuable capacity to help reverse the insidious growth of toxic polarization. Our optimism about national service and bridgebuilding is driven by two key factors: our shared beliefs that bridgebuilding fits into national service’s mission and that success in connecting our communities across divides is within reach.
Bridgebuilding fits within, supports, and advances the national service mission:
National service already has a considerable track record of success in connecting people across difference and a legacy of public commitment to increasing social and civic cohesion. AmeriCorps members have connected with fellow Corps members and community members across lines of race, ethnicity, religion, education, and economic status. Making this bridging and the associated skill-building a much more explicit focus and purpose of national service would build on and expand that success. And we want to build on past success to expand that bridgebuilding capacity to include many more opportunities for bridging across people with different viewpoints.
Leveraging the ethic and skills of bridgebuilding will improve service outcomes. National service already has a deep programmatic portfolio devoted to helping communities become healthier, more resilient, and better able to address their common challenges. And we know that service conducted for—rather than with—communities falls short on impact and is often counterproductive. Service with requires Corps members trained and experienced in exactly the same mindsets and skills that are required for effective bridgebuilding. In other words, equipping Corps members to accomplish civic bridgebuilding also equips them to improve the outcomes of their service.
Bridgebuilding can boost recruitment and retention. Just like the military, police departments, and schools, national service is facing big challenges with recruiting and retaining participants. This challenge won’t be easy to meet, but we believe embracing the bridgebuilding mission could contribute to meeting those recruiting challenges. That’s in part because the skills of navigating conflict and difference — the essential elements of building civic bridges — are also the keys to unlocking success in all parts of life. Employers across all sectors of our economy are seeking to hire people who have these critical skills. These employers, whose American workforces grow more diverse by the day, understand that when people from different walks of life work together, “they make better decisions and solve problems more creatively than homogenous groups do,” in the words of researchers at the University of California at Berkeley.
Success is within reach for national service in building civic bridges:
Wide majorities support bridgebuilding. Two-thirds of Americans say they are frustrated and even disgusted with ideological food fights — and hungry for people to come together to solve our common problems. The nonpartisan organization More In Common says that members of this “exhausted majority” are likely to see the “unifying story of ‘us’ [as] more powerful than the ‘us-versus them’ narratives that divide us as Americans from each other.” More than three-quarters of Americans say they would be willing to connect with people with different political perspectives if the conversation is safe and respectful.
Bridgebuilding is grounded in evidence. Decades of randomized controlled trials of Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport’s Contact Theory, bolstered by the more modern work of Linda Tropp and Thomas Pettigrew, definitively show that bringing people together in safe well-controlled settings can dramatically reduce disdain, prejudice, feelings of threat, perceptions of negative intentions, and beliefs that differences are broader than they are. This is true even in societies emerging from civil war and genocide. The effects are particularly strong when people come together over extended periods of time to engage together in accomplishing a shared mission — exactly what national service does very well.
National service can tap into military experience, which has long been celebrated for its effectiveness in creating strong bonds across difference. Though military bridgebuilding is sometimes mythologized to an extreme, there is no denying the long-lasting connections that many members of the military forge. Contact theory might assert that some of that is simple proximity, of course, but there is intentional design and discipline too. From the moment military recruits begin their training, officers present them with difficult missions that can only be accomplished if all team members have each other’s backs.
National service engages the ideal age group. As is the case with the military, the vast majority of national service programs engage young people – the perfect age and stage for developing the “will and skill” for bridgebuilding across difference. Young people are typically more idealistic than members of other groups, and research also shows that they are also at a stage of development at which they are especially open to new information, perspectives, and experiences.
Participation is not pre-conditioned on compromise. Making progress does not require participants to alter their political views, surrender dearly held values, or forgive transgressions. Forget images of singing “Kumbaya” or forcing people to change their minds or compromise. Reducing polarization requires only that people open their minds — with more curiosity and less certainty; more active listening and less judgment; and more appreciation of our common humanity and less defaulting to stereotypes.
We already have good tools for measuring outcomes. Dozens of bridge-building organizations are now using a shared measurement platform, the Social Cohesion Impact Measure (SCIM), which focuses on four outcomes from bridgebuilding programming – affective polarization, intellectual humility, intergroup empathy, and pluralistic norms – using research validated questions.
The above recommendations and action items must be considered in light of several important caveats.
We hold the current leadership of AmeriCorps and the state commissions that administer AmeriCorps in high regard, and we know they face intense pressures every day. Given that we’re no longer in those hot seats, we have license to provoke conversations that we could not have generated when our official roles required us to reflect Congress’ and the White House’s perspectives on AmeriCorps and national service.
The recommendations and perspectives we’re promoting through this No Greater Mission initiative are meant to help spur useful conversation, innovation, and collaboration between and among leaders, experts, funders, and practitioners across the national service landscape as well as the bridgebuilding field and the movements for democratic renewal and pluralism.
We don’t, however, believe that connecting people and groups across their differences will be easy, much less likely, without hard work. All key parts of the national service ecosystem — not only the federal agency, but the states, grantees, alumni, and private partners and funders — will need to work collaboratively, and in partnership with the bridgebuilding field, in retooling the programs to make forcefully and explicitly tackling the crisis of polarization a top-level priority.
Several conversations about that retooling may be especially bracing, particularly these, which are addressed within the section on recommendations:
The AmeriCorps mission is, “To improve lives, strengthen communities, and foster civic engagement through service and volunteering.” However, those inspiring aspirations have been undermined by an overreliance on transactional “point of service” measures — the numbers of tutored children, pounds of food distributed, miles of beaches cleaned, acres of planted trees, and so on.
These transactional data points will always be important for assessing service results. However, the pendulum has swung too far, resulting in programs that have become organized around transactional and siloed measures rather than the transformation of Corps members into community leaders and pillars of local civic infrastructure.
Framing programs to maximize the transformative nature of the training and experience is an area in which AmeriCorps has much to learn from the military, the Peace Corps, service learning, and teacher professional corps.
The bridgebuilding field is a “cottage industry” made up of thousands of mostly disconnected, young organizations on steep learning curves. Key leadership initiatives like BMAC are making good headway supporting greater collaboration and alignment across the field, as well as moving important collective initiatives forward. Successful work has included establishing goals and measures, developing and socializing best practices, executing national events and campaigns, shaping field-wide narratives, building rapid response capabilities, creating and testing common evaluation vehicles, raising funds for collective priorities, engaging policymakers and more.
The bridging community has mostly internalized the fact that the vast majority of Americans will not line up to be “bridged” by organizations with which they are not familiar. This is why BMAC has clarified that an essential goal of the bridgebuilding field is to partner with new sectors to build civic bridges where people live, work, study, worship, play and, yes, serve.
Partnering with the national service field is not only entirely consistent with this emerging strategy of the bridgebuilding field, but critical for bridgebuilding’s success. However, for these partnerships to be the most effective, bridgebuilders must take stock of several challenges endemic to the field:
Even as our enthusiasm and optimism continued to grow through our exploration, we also heard (and agree with) three additional “watch-outs” reflecting the complexity and difficulty of this work.
Thirty years ago this year, President Bill Clinton signed the bill creating AmeriCorps. He spoke about AmeriCorps’s potential to “help us rebuild our troubled but wonderful land” and strengthen “the cords that bind us together as a people.” He was flanked by idealistic young recruits and veterans of some of the other national service programs launched by previous presidents, including members of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps.
More than a million Americans have served their country through AmeriCorps, which has become the flagship manifestation of domestic national service in America. AmeriCorps members have mentored young people who need more caring adults in their life; planted millions of trees; provided support to families and communities reeling from natural disasters; augmented badly overstretched health care systems during the COVID pandemic; built thousands of homes, and much more. AmeriCorps members have worked shoulder to shoulder with millions of community members, and forged relationships that have shaped millions of lives. Alums have become a mainstay of nonprofit staffing and civil society infrastructure in the communities where they live. It’s a remarkable record of achievement.
Today, America needs even more from AmeriCorps. As America wrestles with crises of distrust and civic toxicity, we see an imperative for the national service and bridgebuilding communities to help respond to these crises by expanding connections and collaboration in communities. The partnership is compelling: the bridgebuilding field offers the best practice mindsets, knowledge, skills, and resources for bringing citizens together to collaborate across our divides, while national service brings tens of thousands of current and future civic leaders to learn, experience and practice bridgebuilding work In our communities.
Now is the moment to help America’s national service and bridgebuilding communities join together in equipping our communities to connect and collaborate across our polarized differences. Through this initiative, No Greater Mission, we aim to call attention to the good work already underway as well as catalyze additional conversations, innovations and action that will be useful to help AmeriCorps prioritize bridgebuilding as a central objective, activity, and outcome of national service. Together, we can reduce the harmful divisiveness in our communities, build civic pathways for healing, and reignite a sense of common purpose.
American Exchange Project participants prepare for a summer powwow with the Santee Sioux tribe in Flandreau, South Dakota. Potentially a model for Corps member exchanges across programs, the free domestic program offers high school seniors nationwide a chance to “see red and blue in a whole new light” by enabling them to spend a week in an American community very different from their own.
Affective polarization is a term used to describe the growing divide in emotional attitudes and feelings between individuals based on their political affiliations. It refers to the phenomenon where individuals’ emotions, and sentiments towards members of their own group become more positive, while their emotions towards members of the opposing group become more negative and distorted, with their differences exaggerated. Affective polarization often leads to increased hostility, animosity, and a reduced willingness to compromise or work together with people who hold different political views.
Bridgebuilding brings people together across conflict or lines of difference to help them increase their mutual trust and understanding, often in service of solving common problems. Effective bridging requires no compromise or validation of other’s beliefs—only a willingness to listen with curiosity. In the words of researchers at the Greater Good Science Center, “The true goal of bridging differences isn’t to convince the other person of your viewpoint or even necessarily to build consensus…. You may disagree with another person, sometimes vehemently. But the key is that you don’t dehumanize them in the process.”
Bridgebuilding field is the rapidly growing network of nonprofit organizations working to build connections across lines of difference, especially ideology and politics. Some of these organizations focus on specific local communities, while some are national or international in scope. All of them are “rooted in highlighting shared humanity, helping people find common ground, creating spaces for people to listen to those with differing views, and encouraging people to reflect on the roots of their own worldviews,” in the words of the Aspen Institute.
Moralization is a distortion of polarization through which we believe the people we disagree with are acting immorally, even illegally and out to destroy sacred values. This non-factual belief can justify a sense of obligation and passion for attacking and demeaning those we disagree with.
Motive misattribution refers to the polarization-driven distortion or cognitive bias by which individuals incorrectly attribute negative motives like hate or vindictiveness to the positions and actions of groups we oppose, while we believe our own group operates out of only the most positive motives, like love.
National service represents multiple forms of civilian volunteering service that are supported by the federal government. National service has played an important part in our national psyche since Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps, in 1933. National service programs promote an ethos of service; provide young people valuable experiences, skills, and networks; offer elders pathways for contributing their skills and wisdom; and make direct contributions to solving important community and national challenges. AmeriCorps, launched in 1993, provides funding to thousands of different national service organizations and initiatives around the country. It also manages AmeriCorps VISTA (formerly known simply as VISTA) and the National Civilian Conservation Corps (NCCC).
National service ecosystem includes the full set of actors that play important roles in the shaping and deployment of AmeriCorps include: the federal agency AmeriCorps, state service commissions, grantee programs, Corps members, host communities, private funders, alums, and policymakers.
Pluralism is an ethos that celebrates the differences within a society and respects groups’ desire to maintain distinctive cultural identities and practices. It stands in stark contrast to tolerating, ignoring, erasing, or excluding difference. In bridgebuilding work, it is often invoked in the context of safeguarding our “pluralistic democracy.”
State Service Commissions appointed by the Governor of each state, administer several elements of AmeriCorps programming, including supporting significant numbers of Corps-member centered program grantees.” Some Commissions, such as those in California and Maryland, operate as cabinet-level agencies.
Toxic Polarization refers to an extreme form of political polarization characterized by intense hostility, animosity, and a toxic atmosphere between individuals or groups with differing political beliefs. It involves the deepening of divisions, often fueled by strong negative emotions, such as anger, hatred, and contempt, towards those who hold opposing political views. Toxic polarization is marked by a lack of constructive dialogue, a tendency to dehumanize or demonize the other side, and a disregard for seeking common ground or understanding. It can have detrimental effects on civil discourse, social cohesion, and the ability to find solutions to societal challenges.
Kristen Bennett: Chief Executive Officer, Service Year Alliance
John Bridgeland: Executive Chairman & Chief Executive Officer, More Perfect; Founder & Chief Executive Officer, Civic Enterprises
Allison Briscoe-Smith: Project Lead of Connecting Californians through Service Project, The Greater Good Science Center; Diversity Lead, University of Washington
Michael Brown: Co-Founder, City Year; Principal, Public Purpose Strategies LLC
Rachel Brown: Executive Director, Over Zero
Neil Bush: Founder & Chief Executive Officer, Neil Bush Global Advisers; Chair, Points of Light Board of Directors
Kyle Caldwell: President & Chief Executive Officer, Council of Michigan Foundations
Kristen Cambell: Chief Executive Officer, Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE)
Dan Cardinali: Senior Fellow, PolicyLink; Former President & Chief Executive Officer, Independent Sector
Peter T. Coleman: Professor of Psychology & Education, Teachers College, Columbia University
AnnMaura Connolly: President, Voices for National Service
Itai Dinour: Executive Director, Carmel Hill Fund
Kaira Esgate: Chief Executive Officer, America’s Service Commission (ASC)
David Fairman: Senior Mediator, Consensus Building Institute (CBI)
Marc Freedman: Founder/Co-Chief Executive Officer, CoGenerate (Formerly Encore.org)
Linda Frey: Director, #CaliforniansForAll College Corps, California Volunteers, Office of the Governor
Josh Fryday: Chief Service Officer, California Volunteers, Office of the Governor
Archon Fung: Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy & Citizenship, Harvard Kennedy School of Government
Bishop Garrison: Vice President of Policy, Intelligence & National Security Alliance
Mark Gearan: President Emeritus, Hobart & William Smith Colleges; Former Director, Peace Corps; Vice Chair for National & Public Service, National Commission on Military, National & Public Service
Robert Godfried: Policy Entrepreneur, Next100
Stephen Goldsmith: Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy, Harvard Kennedy School of Government
Robert Gordon: Head of Business Development, Growth, & Community, Searchlight.ai
Nick Greer: Former Executive Vice President of Interconnection, Thread Inc.
Lilliana Hall Mason: SNF Agora Institute Associate Professor of Political Science, Johns Hopkins University
Kristin Hansen: Executive Director, Civic Health Project
Joe Heck: Brigadier General, U.S. Army Reserve; Former Member of Congress
Sarah Hemminger: Co-Founder & Chief Executive Officer, Thread Inc.
Jennifer Hoos Rothberg: Executive Director, Einhorn Collaborative
Liz Joyner: Founder & Chief Executive Officer, The Village Square
Brandyn Keating: Founder & Chief Executive Officer, YOUnify
Alan Khazei: Co-Founder CityYear, Alan Khazei Consulting
Whitney Kimball Coe: Vice President of National Programs & Director of the Rural Assembly, Center for Rural Strategies
Max Klau: Chief Program Officer, New Politics Leadership Academy
Kyle Kline: Director, Minnesota Alliance with Youth; Co-Chair, AmeriCorps NCCC Alumni Collaborative
Koby Langley: Senior Vice President, The American Red Cross
Peter Levine: Associate Dean of Academic Affairs & Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, Tufts University
Eunice Lin Nichols: Co-Chief Executive Officer, CoGenerate (formerly Encore.org)
Eric Liu: Co-Founder & Chief Executive Officer, Citizen University
Eean Logan: M.P.H. candidate, Johns Hopkins University; Member, AmeriCorps Alumni Board
Anne Mahle: Senior Vice President of Public Partnerships, Teach for America
Mamar Marshall: Alumnus, YouthBuild; Grantee, NASA Communities of Practice
Zach Maurin: Member, NewPolitics.org Board of Directors; Co-Founder, Storied Hats
Heather McGhee: Author, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone & How We Can Prosper Together
Liz McNally: Executive Vice President, Schmidt Futures
Manu Meel: Chief Executive Officer, BridgeUSA
Frank Mirabal: Senior Advisor, The Aspen Institute; Co-Founder & Partner, Levado
Debilyn Molineaux: President & Chief Executive Officer, Bridge Alliance US; Co-Publisher, The Fulcrum.US
Nova Morales: Natural Resource Specialist, Houston Arboretum & Nature Center
Peter Nelson: Vice President of Impact & Innovation, ServeMinnesota
Sonali Nijhawan: Director of AmeriCorps State and National, Corporation for National & Community Service
Michelle Nunn: President & Chief Executive Officer, CARE USA
Nealin Parker: Executive Director, Common Ground USA
Eboo Patel: Founder & President, Interfaith America
Tim Phillips: Founder & Chief Executive Officer, Beyond Conflict
Sandy Pulles: Vice President of Equity & Inclusion, ServeMinnesota
Shirley Sagawa: Board of Directors, Corporation for National and Community Service
Yasmeen Shaheen-McConnell: Senior Advisor, Strategic Partnerships, Corporation for National & Community Service
Alero Simon: National Service Operations Coordinator, NYC Service
Michael Smith: Chief Executive Officer, Corporation for National & Community Service
Capri St. Vil: Board Member, Center for Watershed Protection; Principal Consultant, Kiskeiano Consulting
Daniel Stid: Executive Director, Lyceum Labs
Audrey Suker: Former Chief Executive Officer, ServeMinnesota
Eric Tanenblatt: Global Chair, Public Policy & Regulation, Dentons
Lemi Tilahun: Community Organizer, Leaders, Believers, & Achievers Foundation
Linda Tropp: Professor of Social Psychology, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Elisa Villanueva Beard: Chief Executive Officer, Teach for America
Uma Viswanathan: Executive Director, New Pluralists Collaborative
Steve Waldman: Chief Executive Officer & Founder, Rebuild Local News; Co-Founder, Report for America
Melissa Weintraub: Founder & Co-Executive Director, Resetting the Table
Rachel Wheeler: Appalachian Farmacy Program Director, Appalachian Resource Conservation & Development Council
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David and John offer their profound thanks:
To the Einhorn Collaborative and Schmidt Futures for their generosity, encouragement, and partnership in supporting this work.
To the great team at Convergence, especially Hannah Ollenburger and Caroline Chang, who oversaw and managed this project with smarts, effectiveness, and flexibility. We’re also grateful to Meg Little Reilly, Tasia Karoutsos, and Alexander Frazier, who supported communications, including distribution and conversation-sparking.
To Lowell Weiss, who supported our writing, strengthened our thinking, and made the work more meaningful and joyful.
To each of those diverse leaders and organizations who have shared or are developing responses to the paper, naming where it’s useful, where it’s not, and what they see as next steps. The value we expect to see generated across these responses is the reason we see this as a working paper that will remain open for changes, refinements, and new ideas.
To each of those we interviewed for sharing their insights with generosity, candor, and trust. Of course, any errors in this paper are our fault, not theirs!
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