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What the Designated Drivers Campaign Can Teach Those in the Youth Service Movement

In the mid eighties, nobody in the U.S. knew what a designated driver was. The concept simply didn't exist here. It was actually a Scandinavian...

In the mid-eighties, nobody in the U.S. knew what a designated driver was. The concept simply didn't exist in America. It was actually a Scandinavian idea. Harvard Public Health Professor Jay Winsten cleverly and systematically seeded the notion in popular culture through a partnership with all the major Hollywood studios and the television networks beginning in 1988.

Within four television seasons, 160 prime time episodes addressed drinking and driving and the notion of the designated driver as "the life of the party" swiftly went mainstream. By 1991, more than half of Americans under 30 reported that they had been a designated driver. Winsten's coup of harnessing the power of popular entertainment media for a broad pro-social campaign was revolutionary.

Right now in Washington D.C., Zach Maurin, a social entrepreneur and Founder of ServeNext, is hoping to replicate the Jay Winsten approach with another fairly unknown concept: the year of community-based service for young Americans. Think City Year, Americorps, or Teach for America. "Those are all programs we celebrate," he told me recently. "But we're out to elevate a concept, not a brand."

In the last three decades, much progress has been made to increase opportunities for national service. Americorps was started by Clinton, expanded by Bush, and has actually not grown at all under Obama (but let's not get off on that tangent). "As a country we largely don't understand a year of service and what that could mean," says Maurin. "We understand going to college from high school or college to career, but a year of service should be part of the American experience as well."

So how will Maurin repeat the victory of Winsten? He's got his eyes on Hollywood. "We'll hire someone in Los Angeles to work with show runners and writers with the hope that, over a course of years, this idea will become part of the conversation about what characters are thinking about doing or their parents are talking about."

Take a recent episode of Parenthood, says Maurin, with a kitchen table scene and a young person talking about wanting to figure out what to do with her life. He suggests scenes like this provide opportunities to ask young characters, "Which national service program are you going to apply to? Which ones accepted you? The audience would go through this experience with the character. That's the dream scenario." Just think of how many times you've seen some variation on the scene of some high school senior anxiously awaiting for a thick envelope in their mailbox.

Another part of this "cultural campaign" is developing shareable creative web content. "Look at College Humor's incredible work with Malaria No More," says Maurin. He also aims to build "a stable of surrogates—leading Americans with powerful stories of service—who can create a regular drumbeat for this conversation in the traditional news media; people who can show that this thing is real, it's working, and it's a good investment."

While there's plenty of advocacy out there, he says what's missing is the ability "to reach young people in their living rooms and at their kitchen tables and the offices of their guidance counselors.

"I did City Year right after high school and I had people ask me, 'Is everything OK, why aren't you going to college?' " said Maurin. "And I'd say, 'Actually, everything isn't ok. I'm tired of school and I want to go do something and get some experience outside the classroom.' Nobody at my high school told me about Americorps. I had to go out and find it on my own."

My own experience, 10 years earlier than Maurin's, was similar. When my high school printed its graduation program, along with all the prestigious institutions students were bound to join the following fall, I asked that they indicate that I had opted out and would be heading to a South Boston classroom for a year of service with City Year. Instead, they printed one of the colleges to which I had deferred admission; the notion of a year of service just didn't resonate widely in 1993, and in large part, it still doesn't. Maurin has set out on an ambitious path and I wish him much luck and persistence.

designated driver image courtesy of shutterstock

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