September 11th is known as the National Day of Service and Remembrance. The day was established in 2009 as a tribute to the 9/11 victims, survivors, and those who rose up in service in response to the attacks.
One of the people who rose up to serve was Aaron Marquez (City Year Boston '03, '04), who joined City Year shortly after the attacks of 9/11. Since then, Aaron has dedicated his life to social change, to serving his country and strengthening underserved communities. Marquez recently ran in the Arizona state senate race, and took time to answer a few questions about the impact of 9/11 on his decision to serve, and how City Year influenced what has become a life-long commitment to service.
1. The attacks of 9/11 took place while you were in college. How did the tragedy influence your decision to join City Year?
I was a freshman at the University of Arizona in Tucson when the 9/11 attacks happened. I spent the summer before working with a recruiter trying to join the Army Reserve before getting medically disqualified for childhood asthma in August of 2001. After the 9/11 attacks I knew I wanted to serve. I initially sought a medical waiver to join the Army, but then discovered AmeriCorps and City Year. I remember a public service announcement for AmeriCorps on MTV that said, “Want to serve your country, but not sure the military is right for you?”
2. After your two years with City Year you co-founded ServeNext, which merged with ServiceNation. What about your experience with City Year inspired you to do this?
During City Year I became passionate about social change and the role that national service plays in fighting many of our country’s most intractable challenges facing our communities. Through City Year I worked with middle and high school youth to show them that even at a young age they could make a difference in their communities by planting trees in local parks, serving lunch at a homeless shelter, and many other youth led service projects. At the same time I realized that service projects alone do not lead to systemic social change. Systemic change happens through governance and political advocacy. The summer before my second year with City Year, the U.S. Congress drastically cut funding for AmeriCorps. I didn’t understand the rationale for cutting a successful program. I also realized the limitations placed on AmeriCorps programs and charitable non-profit organizations when trying to engage in the political process. That experience of the summer to “Save AmeriCorps” instilled in me the need to establish an organization exclusively committed to advocacy for AmeriCorps national service programs.
3. You eventually joined the Army Reserve and served in Afghanistan to support Operation Enduring Freedom. Were there any core values from City Year that you drew upon during the war?
I think if you look at the Army Values and the City Year Values you’ll find plenty of similarities. During City Year I first learned about Ubuntu when I met a class of Clinton Democracy Fellows from South Africa. In Afghanistan I worked as a Civil Affairs officer on development projects intended to convince the Afghans to believe in some basic principles of governance and to believe in the Afghan government more than the Taliban. I spent much of my time meeting with village elders and district governors discussing community needs. People are people everywhere on this planet and they want the same things for their children, families, and communities. In Afghanistan I heard about how much they wanted better schools for their children, better jobs, and security they could trust from local law enforcement. City Year very much equipped me to do my job in Afghanistan and to earn the trust of the Afghans.
4. You've built an inspiring career in public service. What motivated you to run for Arizona State Senate and what was it like to run as a first-time candidate? Was service part of your policy platform?
As the war in Afghanistan – the longest period of war in U.S. history – comes to an end I believe it’s important that more veterans begin to run for office at all levels of government. The challenges at the Phoenix VA only highlight the challenges facing the VA across the country. City, state, and local government needs to step-up to fill the gaps for Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and their families as they transition to civilian life. Military families need support navigating higher education, entering the workforce, and accessing healthcare. In addition I wanted to highlight how much more state government could do to promote national service. In the last twelve years since I my corps year with City Year almost all of the effort has been put into expanding AmeriCorps through the federal government. I believe that every state will have to establish its own service corps if we really want to see 1 million Americans a year in service. On the campaign I proposed a program that a would pay for the first year of community college for any Arizona high school graduate that committed to doing a year of service. If you invest in Arizona, then Arizona will invest in you. As a first-time candidate I learned so much about my community by going door-to-door talking with voters. I didn’t end up winning the race, but I do know I am now better prepared to serve my community.
5. What advice would you give to City Year's newest corps members who are embarking on their first year of service?
Give it your all. Volunteer for every extra leadership opportunity. Invest in building friendships with your fellow corps members. The best man at my wedding was my roommate during City Year. If you give City Year 110% of your effort during your corps year, the City Year community and network will always be there for you in whatever you do next. You have one year to do something amazing. You are very lucky. Very few Americans get this opportunity to serve in this way. When you finish, join the movement to expand national service, and make sure to fill your boots.