America: A Service Nation

On the 15th anniversary of AmeriCorps, Shirley Sagawa examines how far the program has come, and the opportunities for expanding national service.

AmeriCorp volunteers Derek Haddad, left foreground, and Eddie Galan, right, both of Boston, applaud Friday, October 19, 2001, as they join some 1,000 new AmeriCorps members—who volunteer for one year to work in community service—during a rally to kick off their year of service. (AP/Patricia McDonnell)
AmeriCorp volunteers Derek Haddad, left foreground, and Eddie Galan, right, both of Boston, applaud Friday, October 19, 2001, as they join some 1,000 new AmeriCorps members—who volunteer for one year to work in community service—during a rally to kick off their year of service. (AP/Patricia McDonnell)

Fifteen years ago today, President Bill Clinton signed legislation creating the AmeriCorps program. He observed that day that no government program could solve all our problems, but “the American people, if organized and directed and challenged and asked would find a way.” He saw “even in the most difficult circumstances the light in the eyes of so many young people, the courage, the hunger for life, the desire to do something to reach beyond themselves.” AmeriCorps, he believed, could be a means to leverage that idealism and direct it at key challenges facing the country.

Experience has proven President Clinton right. In the last 15 years more than 500,000 Americans have served and earned money for college or to pay back loans. More importantly, through AmeriCorps, these individuals have changed their communities. They have helped kids and adults learn to read and motivated students to learn. They have restored environments damaged by human action and rebuilt homes destroyed by natural disasters. And they have improved the health of low-income communities and the safety of the streets.

AmeriCorps members have also strengthened the thousands of non-profit organizations and schools where they have served by helping them reach more people and work together better within communities. Just last year, the nation’s 75,000 AmeriCorps members recruited 1.7 million community volunteers to serve alongside them in some 4,100 non-profit, faith-based, and community organizations across the country.

AmeriCorps members pledge to get things done for America “this year and beyond.” Strong evidence indicates that they have kept that pledge. AmeriCorps alumni, according to studies, are more connected to their communities and committed to public service—and more satisfied with their lives than those who thought about serving but did not. They typically remain active in their communities. They not only continue to volunteer, but many also run nonprofits, marshal resources within their communities to address difficult issues, and pursue public service careers. They are revitalizing the workforce for government, non-profit organizations, and the teaching profession, with more than 60 percent of alumni engaged in public service work.

AmeriCorps’s impact has gone beyond the people who serve and the people and programs they help. The program has also fostered innovation directed at solving critical problems by supporting organizations started by social entrepreneurs—individuals with breakthrough ideas who have changed entire fields by demonstrating measurably better outcomes than traditional practice. From Teach for America to Citizen Schools to the Harlem Children’s Zone, cutting-edge organizations have found ways to leverage the idealism of young adults to bring about transformative change.

Despite this track record, the promise of national service remains unrealized, with full-time civilian service opportunities available to only a small fraction of young adults. The 75 million students from kindergarten to college and tens of millions of baby boomers who may soon be looking for “encore” careers are also important resources ready to be deployed on a far greater scale.

Today, a bipartisan group of political leaders, CEOs, college presidents, military officers, philanthropists, and other leaders from all walks of life have assembled in New York City at the ServiceNation Summit. These 600 leaders of all ages and from every sector of American life are celebrating the power and potential of service and laying out a bold policy blueprint for addressing challenges facing our society through expanded opportunities for volunteer and community national service.

This policy blueprint follows closely CAP’s national service policy agenda, calling for new corps focusing service on key national priorities, including education, energy alternatives, community health, disaster response, and economic opportunity. It endorses a summer of service for students transitioning from middle to high school and expanded opportunities for older adults and disadvantaged youth to serve. And it proposes new support for social entrepreneurship, including a fund for communities to grow organizations with proven track records that could be expanded to address their biggest challenges.

In this era of change, national service offers a way of doing business differently, not just in communities, but inside Washington. Historically, national service has had bipartisan support. President Clinton’s legislation followed on demonstration programs signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, and the current president has not only supported AmeriCorps but also overseen its growth.

This bipartisan support continues, with joint efforts by Senators Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) to develop legislation to implement the ServiceNation policy agenda, the recent formation of a bipartisan National Service Caucus, and efforts by congressional leaders of both parties who have sponsored legislation encompassed by the ServiceNation agenda. If these initiatives are successful, their work will go far to make good on the dream President Clinton spoke of on the White House lawn 15 years ago today: “that national service will remain throughout the life of America not a series of promises but a series of challenges across all the generations and all walks of life to rebuild our troubled but wonderful land.”

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Shirley Sagawa

Senior Fellow