July 19, 2000
The urge to serve. Spencer Michels looks at the national service movement.
SPENCER MICHELS: 1,000 youngsters gathered in San Jose, California in late spring to celebrate idealism. They are members of City Year, one of the oldest of about 700 groups that make up Americorps, the umbrella national service organization which is funded largely by the federal government. Americorps has about 40,000 members nationwide. Idealism is the watchword of City Year, and its staff sees the annual convention as a chance to boost that concept.
BERNADETTE LIMOSNERO, Deputy Director, City Year San Jose: It's an opportunity to show the country that young people are the leaders in their communities, and it's an opportunity to really invite the community to understand what the national service movement is about.
|A Chance to Serve|
SPENCER MICHELS: Most Americans are largely unaware of national service programs, even though their history goes back to 1933. The idea of such service began with President Franklin Roosevelt, who founded the CCC The civilian conservation corps-- during the depression to give employment to thousands of jobless young men. John Kennedy resurrected tradition by beginning the Peace Corps. Since 1961 it has sent 155,000 Americans overseas to help developing nations; nearly 7,000 volunteers currently. In the 1980's and early 1990's, new domestic programs, including City Year, started up, encouraged by President George Bush.
PRESIDENT BUSH: The definition of a successful life must include serving others
SPENCER MICHELS: Then, in 1993, President Clinton fought for and signed a bill authorizing Americorps. City Year-- one of his favorite programs-- came under its umbrella.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: When I went to City Year in Boston, the lights came on in my mind and I said, "this is what I want to do."
SPENCER MICHELS: But today, leaders of City Year and other Americorps programs like the East Bay Conservation Corps are concerned that in these good economic times, idealism and public service can easily be forgotten. In Oakland, California, East Bay Conservation Corps Executive Director Joanna Lennon says this year is especially crucial.
JOANNA LENNON, East Bay Conservation Corps: I think it's really important in this Presidential year. I have not seen Gore or Bush really talk about national service or Americorps, and it think it's important that they do so. And I think the whole dot-com situation has really made people think that they can raise money at the drop of a hat, and they don't have to do anything significant for it. So I think Americorps counters that.
SPENCER MICHELS: For Americorps members, national service means devoting up to a year full-time to improving the community, like this recycling program, or restoring and using equipment to shape up inner city neighborhoods. Most Americorps workers are paid living expenses of up to $230 a week. Plus, at the end of their term, they get nearly $5,000 to use for education.
SPOKESMAN: Good morning. Buenos dias, Washington Elementary!
|Idealism in Action|
SPENCER MICHELS: In San Jose, as at 13 City Year sites around the country, many of the 17- to 24-year-old corps members spend their nine month-year working with elementary school children. This is what the corps considers idealism in action; in this case, helping low-achieving students in one-to-one situations, aiding regular teachers, tutoring. Corps members encourage and support each other in daily team meetings, part of a prescribed routine devised by City Year leaders like John Sarvey.
JOHN SARVEY, Director, City Year San Jose: We think that there's an inherent idealism in every person, especially young people, that if we give them the right structure and opportunity, we can call it out. And we're very deliberate in our culture and our training to foster it and to train the corps members in what idealism is all about.
CORPS MEMBER: Good, example. That's a hard word, too.
SPENCER MICHELS: Here at San Jose's Washington Elementary School, corps members have to conform to strict rules. They wear uniforms; they must arrive for work exactly on time. Swearing and smoking are forbidden. And there are penalties-- including eventual suspension-- for repeated non-compliance. As the programs have grown, Americorps and City Year have received increasing bipartisan support in Congress. This year, Americorps got $473 million. City Year got $9 million of that, but tripled it with additional money from corporate sponsors. But some conservatives and libertarians find the use of any tax money for national service objectionable, and they have tried to block funding in the past. Doug Bandow is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute. He talked with reporter Alan Freedman.
DOUG BANDOW, Cato Institute: Service is a good thing. The problem is who should provide the service, and who should pay for it. That's the real question we're asking. Does government have to do it? Can't we get that private enrichment without government stepping in, providing, I think, some very real dangers in the longer term?
SPENCER MICHELS: Americorps officials say without government money, most of their programs just wouldn't work. Joanna Lennon:
JOANNA LENNON: I think government has a responsibility to take a leadership role in setting a tone, in saying that it's important for us to draw together as a community. A democracy is predicated on people doing that, and I think that government has a role to play in that.
SPENCER MICHELS: And money to contribute as well?
JOANNA LENNON: Absolutely.
SPENCER MICHELS: But Bandow has other objections to national service.
DOUG BANDOW: There's the much more utopian, all-encompassing vision where, you know, national service can solve all problems, educate people, provide jobs, teach, you know, make us one; I mean, all these sorts of things. I have a real problem with the utopian vision. It strikes me, a group like City Year, has kind of come in at the utopian end of that, where the people who are promoting City Year view it as being a mechanism to help promote those utopian ends.
SPENCER MICHELS: Some Americorps alumni also worry that programs are more about feeling good than doing good. Rosa Gonzalez served in the San Francisco Urban Service Corps, and now is a middle school teacher.
ROSA GONZALEZ, Former Americorps Member: I think that the programs do create times when real change occurs, and that that can be really inspiring. But I think that there's sometimes an overemphasis on the feel-good aspect of it. And we came in there, and we planted a tree, and it felt great, and everyone can go home happy. But a lot of the real issues that are going on in the community are being neglected.
|Ask What It Has Done For You|
SPENCER MICHELS: Within the corps, most members are extremely enthusiastic about their year, for what it's done for them, as well as for those they serve. Amanda Curley was aimless, traveling, working odd jobs, before she joined up.
AMANDA CURLEY, City Year Corps Member: I have seen what I can do this year, and I think that no matter what, I'm going to go out into the world and make a difference. My resume looks awesome now, and because of that I can get my foot in the door, and I'm applying to different elementary schools now that I can work in.
SPENCER MICHELS: Kelly Terr, who finished high school a year ago and plans on college next year, says City Year gave her more than classroom experience.
KELLY TERR, City Year Corps Member: Like, there's people from every kind of personality, coming from every kind of background, coming from everywhere in the country. And the thing is, is that we actually do learn to interact and work, and appreciate each other.
SPENCER MICHELS: Noe Bravo grew up in a mostly Latino section of San Jose. He says City Year has taught him a new ethic.
NOE BRAVO, City Year Corps Member: I know sometimes, like, I wake up, and I'm like so tired, like, from a day's work, or just don't want to go to work, and I think, like, "oh, man, I can't let my team down." Like, my team motivates me, to like push myself harder, like that's how awesome they are to me.
SPENCER MICHELS: But former Americorps member Rosa Gonzalez says many programs often fail to attract as diverse a group as they claim.
ROSA GONZALEZ: I think the majority of corps members tend to come from middle class, suburban backgrounds. I think that sometimes there's an assumption that just by putting somebody from a community with more resources into a community with less resources, that somehow change will occur.
|Good for the Country|
SPENCER MICHELS: Americorps officials say such criticisms miss the main point-- that infusing young people with idealism is good for them and the country.
JOANNA LENNON: I think this country is rather bereft of idealism, and I think the more that we can provide mechanisms and ways for people to contribute to making things better, it's really important.
SPENCER MICHELS: Americorps comes up for funding and renewal before Congress this year with little opposition expected. Besides renewal of their program, what corps leaders and those in City Year would eventually like would be a vast expansion of national service programs so that every young American would spend some time serving the nation.