Photos of the youthful protesters in Tahrir Square who brought down former Egyptian President Mubarak reminded me of the students I had met a few years ago at the American University in Cairo.
I had gone to Cairo for interviews with the Egyptian subsidiaries of Cemex, IBM, and Procter & Gamble as part of the research for my book SuperCorp. One stop was at the gleaming modern California-style "tech city" that Egypt's information and communications ministry used to attract American technology companies - which now seems ironic, because tech networks accelerated the fall of the Mubarak regime.
The students I addressed had been handpicked for a special leadership development program. One young woman in a head scarf smiled through her braces and asked in flawless English for business career advice. She was studying engineering - Egypt graduates a high proportion of woman engineers, as I saw when I met with a group of IBM women known as "top talent," including the first local woman to breast-feed her baby at work.
The university students asked what could they do to improve life in Egypt? Service, I replied. Form a national service corps, like we have in the U.S. Find government and business support. Get brigades of young people tutoring in schools, or organizing neighborhoods to pick up the garbage that littered streets and spilled into streams in residential areas. Or perhaps a YouthBuild corps to finish the houses that were occupied but under permanent construction, with accompanying rubble, because it saved taxes for the owners to live in unfinished houses. But schools, I said, were the most important place to get involved.
Now Egypt's authoritarian ruler is gone, a military council is in change for the moment, and the power of the people has been unleashed. But unless that youthful force for change is directed toward improving schools and neighborhoods, creating jobs through entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship, democracy in Egypt is imperiled.
My experience in Egypt has me thinking about the state of national service in the United States. Fortunately, national service programs are beginning to produce change — and a role model for countries like Egypt showing what American democracy can accomplish.
I'm a devotee of national service because I've seen the evidence of its impact. This is why I've stayed on the international board of City Year for 16 years. City Year is an urban Peace Corps that was one of the models for AmeriCorps, serving in over 20 U.S. cities plus London and Johannesburg. Through direct service in schools as teacher aides, tutors, and role models, corps members are raising student achievement in the worst schools, working in diverse teams across racial and income divides. Studies show that AmeriCorps alumni vote in higher numbers than their peers and carry the zeal to serve throughout their lives, becoming community leaders. The impact of national service, particularly in public schools, attracts major companies to join the federal government in funding national service programs, including Comcast, Bank of America, Deloitte & Touche, and PepsiCo, among others.
But just when it is clear that investing in U.S. competitiveness is vital, with youth job creation and public school improvement on the agenda, a proposal before Congress would not only cut AmeriCorps, it would eliminate AmeriCorps altogether.
That would be the wrong direction. Remove AmeriCorps, and 100,000 jobs for young people would go down the drain. Remove AmeriCorps, and lose one of the best hopes to keep a million potential high school dropouts on track for graduation and college, though the extra boost from near-peer tutoring. Without AmeriCorps, there goes youth leadership development capacity equivalent only to the military and the benefits of civilian service in every state. Slashing AmeriCorps would squander an enormous American strength - a democracy built on civic engagement and community activism, tapping the entrepreneurial spirit to build businesses and strengthen communities.
Egyptian young people want jobs and a better country, just as American young people do. The difference is that we in the U.S. have more ways to tap the energy and idealism of youth, including national and community service programs.
America doesn't need less national service; Egypt needs more. And come to think of it, perhaps AmeriCorps should be expanded, and its young leaders sent to speak in Cairo.