AmeriCorps is a federally funded program that has provided disaster relief, education, protection for natural lands, jobs for young people, and housing since 1965. Right now, it’s on the chopping block. The Trump Administration has listed the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which runs AmeriCorps, as one of the agencies that should be terminated.
When I was a member of AmeriCorps in New Orleans, I conducted community outreach, helped walk applicants through the processes of getting a home, and assisted with developing new programs. Every day I listened to heartbreaking stories, and every day I had to let people know whether or not we could help them. I learned job skills, I learned a new culture, and I met people I would never have been connected with if it weren’t for AmeriCorps.
Issues like food deserts and banking deserts and school choice and government corruption — these are no longer abstract policy issues to me, they are what my clients were working through every day in New Orleans. And what I grappled with as well, living in the Upper 9th Ward.
AmeriCorps didn’t just teach me to help, it taught me how to help. Because the how matters. Giving people dignity, doing your research, putting in the hard work, respecting the community, evaluating your efforts, understanding the bigger systems, these things matter.
AmeriCorps brings our nation together. It is the epitome of what makes America great — unity in diversity, lending a helping hand, working hard. It brings our nation together in ways that a state-run program could not because it takes a kid from Los Angeles and lets her work in rural South Carolina. It took a girl from the suburbs, me, and let her explore the vibrant culture of New Orleans. Now, more than ever, we need people who have crossed into other communities. We cannot remain in our bubbles. We need the sort of immersive travel and service experience that AmeriCorps can give us.
AmeriCorps, along with many other programs, has been targeted by the Trump Administration at the behest of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Their main complaint is that it is an example of “federal overreach” into local and community activities and a waste of funds. The CNCS takes up an estimated 0.03% of the federal budget, requesting $1.097 billion in 2017 (out of a national budget of around 4 trillion. TRILLION.) But AmeriCorps makes that money back and then some — research has shown that every dollar invested in national service, gets almost 4 dollars in return in output, earnings and community benefits.
Some Republicans have spoken out against their own party to support AmeriCorps, including John McCain. The Republican leader of CNCS under George W. Bush, Stephen Goldsmith, put out a resounding call to save AmeriCorps, citing facts such as how AmeriCorps participants are more likely to find jobs and stay involved in community and civic duties for the rest of their life. Goldsmith was once a skeptic himself, but by tweaking how AmeriCorps was run to give the decision-making power over to local communities, he overcame his federalist qualms and is now a huge proponent of the program.
AmeriCorps was a great help after disasters such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and in creating jobs in Appalachia. It gives young people a path to social mobility through hard work and an education stipend. Many communities around the United States depend on AmeriCorps and are fearful of what could happen without its support — from schools in Denver to health programs in Montana’s tribal lands. But aside from the very important and tangible aid that AmeriCorps volunteers deliver, they also gain an understanding of our nation that is priceless.
My friend Jamie served with AmeriCorps as a disaster relief volunteer with FEMA Corps and as a coordinator of a migrant shelter in Arizona. “Living in a border town,” she says, “I quickly came to realize just how huge the gap between reality and political rhetoric is. Because of my job, I had a lot of contact with the immigrant community, Border Patrol, ICE, and the activist communities fighting for migrant rights and immigration reform. I was made aware (especially since I have roots in a mostly white community in the north) that there is a huge disconnect for people consuming news media about immigration, because there is such a huge distance from their reality, whereas people on the border can’t help but face the humanity of the situation, since people are dying in the desert or being locked up in detention just a short drive from their homes.” Jamie finds much of AmeriCorps’ value in how it “exposes its members to a variety of people of different backgrounds and beliefs and can really open their minds and help to shape their worldviews.”
Eric is a friend and fellow AmeriCorps member who I met during my time in New Orleans. He joined the program because his own family’s home in Charlotte had been built by AmeriCorps members. He remembers that home as the first one that belonged completely to his family, all their own, where they couldn’t be kicked out. With AmeriCorps, Eric helped with hurricane relief, tutored kids, worked in a hospital, and built homes. He told me that traveling with AmeriCorps as an adult changed how he viewed the US, though not always in good ways — he learned more about the diversity of the people, a diversity which he found to be positive and uplifting. But as a black man, he also encountered racism.
If we remain in our regional bubbles — whether that is a small town in the Midwest or among the “coastal elites” — we do ourselves and our nation a disservice. If we tell ourselves the comforting story of a post-racial society or the horror story of a nation of entitled snowflake millennials, we are telling fairy tales. We need to see the United States for what it is.
For me, AmeriCorps showed me a side of the country I never even knew existed — the Cajun culture of South Louisiana, the magic and beauty and music of New Orleans. It was also my first full-time job in the United States post-college. It gave me the training and confidence I needed to build a career.
As Jamie put it, “It can be incredibly difficult for recent college grads to find entry-level employment these days, and AmeriCorps offers them the opportunity to dive right into really interesting, challenging and useful work.” She credits her AmeriCorps experience with helping her stand out in job interviews.
AmeriCorps gives the United States a solid return on investment in terms of money and, even more importantly, in terms of lives changed. I’m all ears if AmeriCorps is wasting money or if it has failed at its mission — I’m all for accountability in our service work. But while certain nonprofit initiatives may have failed, AmeriCorps has not. It has brought strangers together across our nation. It has broken through our notorious bubbles. It has solved problems through getting our hands dirty and working hard. What is more American than that?