Friday marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of AmeriCorps, and all across the country, including at the White House, supporters of the program will gather to mark the occasion by simultaneously swearing in the 2014-2015 class of AmeriCorps members. The new cohort will, as the 900,000 who have come before them did, raise their right hands and pledge to "get things done for America." All of us will come away with a renewed sense of the potential of the program to unite our divided country for the common good, and all of us will wonder why the administration and Congress have not made good on their promise to expand the program.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton created AmeriCorps and the Corporation for National and Community Service because he believed in the power of citizens to change the country from the ground up. On the day that he signed the National and Community Service Trust Act he said: “I hope, believe, and dream 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 help us to rebuild our troubled but wonderful land. I hope that someday the success of this program will make it possible for every young American who wishes to serve and earn credit against a college education or other kinds of education and training, to do that. And I believe it will happen.”
Over two decades and spanning three presidential administrations, AmeriCorps has built a legacy of high-impact and cost-effective national service that has united and strengthened communities and mobilized a generation of citizens. In the 20 years since the first class of AmeriCorps members was sworn in by President Clinton at the White House, AmeriCorps has consistently and powerfully demonstrated its ability to inspire Americans to serve their neighbors and bring to life the words of the AmeriCorps pledge. Few programs—especially those funded by the federal government—can boast a similar level of impact, leverage or bipartisan support.
From the beginning, AmeriCorps captured the imaginations of local elected officials, governors and nonprofit leaders who flocked to the program, engaging AmeriCorps members to provide the kinds of vital services sorely needed in their communities. With a modest federal investment matched by private contributions, leading nonprofit organizations and local agencies have tapped the energy and idealism of citizens from every part of American society who have together contributed more than 1.2 billion hours of service to the nation and their communities. President George W. Bush—a champion since he was Governor of Texas—even expanded the program by 50 percent during his administration.
Americans across the country who have seen AmeriCorps in action understand the unique benefits of national service. Those in parts of the country that have been most affected by the recent series of natural disasters have discovered first-hand the difference AmeriCorps makes. After Hurricane Katrina caused unprecedented damage along the Gulf Coast, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour said, “Much of the work in the wake of Hurricane Katrina fell on the shoulders of volunteers and AmeriCorps members. These volunteers have helped rebuild a stronger and better Mississippi. I am proud and honored to be a friend of national service.” The Joplin Globe weighed in after AmeriCorps members rushed to Missouri in the wake of a string of deadly tornadoes: “No city in America is more grateful for AmeriCorps than Joplin … These young people have been with us since day one, and while their hours can be counted and a dollar value put on their labor, what they have given to and done for Joplin since May 22 is immeasurable. AmeriCorps has done heroic service for Joplin.”
Today, AmeriCorps members across the country tutor and mentor students, help Americans to lead healthier lives, provide job training and other services to returning veterans, preserve the nation’s parks and public lands, and continue to assist with relief and recovery efforts after natural disasters. Ask anyone who has seen an AmeriCorps member at work. It is impossible not to be moved by their dedication and passion for helping the people and communities that need them most.
The lives of millions of Americans have been transformed by the service and sacrifice of AmeriCorps members, who earn a small living stipend and a scholarship to help defray the rising costs of college during their service year. They eat ramen noodles, bunk up together and learn how to work together, across all of their differences to improve the lives of the people they serve. AmeriCorps members are the embodiment of patriotism in action.
Building on the success of AmeriCorps, in 2009, the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act was passed with broad bipartisan support and signed into law by President Obama in the first 100 days of his presidency. That landmark legislation authorized the largest expansion of national service since the Great Depression, setting AmeriCorps on an eight-year growth trajectory to triple the size of the program from 75,000 to 250,000 members by 2017. In the last five years, Congress and the administration have fallen far short of their promise to expand AmeriCorps.
Now the task is to move beyond the political stalemates in Congress and the administration and show the American people that our nation’s leaders can work together for the common good. What America needs most is leaders of courage who will reaffirm their commitment to the idea of “a more perfect union,” and empower citizens to lead the way, leaders who will boldly reject the hyper-partisan, divisive politics that seem to be the new normal and work together across party lines to ensure that every citizen who wants to serve has the opportunity to do so. And that means that President Obama and Congressional leaders should take the goals outlined in the Serve America Act seriously and ensure that the federal government is doing its part to expand service opportunities as they promised they would in 2009.
The dedicated women and men who have stepped forward to serve in some of the most challenging circumstances imaginable, devoting their hearts and minds to “get things done for America,” and the millions of Americans whose lives could be transformed through the service of future generations deserve nothing less.
For a more in-depth look at national service and its 20 year history, click here to read a report by Voices for National Service.
Leading up to AmeriCorps' 20th anniversary on September 12, 2014, we will be featuring stories of service – from those who helped bring AmeriCorps to life 20 years ago, to individuals who have taken the AmeriCorps pledge and dedicated their lives to creating positive change in their communities. Follow stories of service on our blog.