AmeriCorps was officially established in 1993 when President Clinton signed the National and Community Service Trust Act. Currently, AmeriCorps employs 75,000 members to work in the areas of education, public safety, health, and the environment. With its commitment to public service and its congressional charter, AmeriCorps is widely considered a modern-day version of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Kristin McSwain was appointed the Director of AmeriCorps in 2006, and she also oversees Senior Corps, Learn and Serve America, AmeriCorps VISTA, and AmeriCorps NCCC. She spoke with AMERICAN EXPERIENCE on Sept. 4, 2009.

Chief of Program Operations and Director of AmeriCorps

Do you feel like you’re living in a world that the New Deal created? How might things be different today without it?

Oh, I’m not sure that AmeriCorps would exist in its present format if you didn’t have the New Deal. I think it created certain tenets on which national service programs are based.

People often refer to AmeriCorps as the modern-day Civilian Conservation Corps. What do you see that’s stayed the same? What’s different?

There’s two different types of AmeriCorps programs that are related to the CCC specifically. Writ large, the idea of engaging individuals in service to improve their communities is definitely out of the CCC. But we also have programs within our AmeriCorps grants portfolio that are actually conservation corps that are rooted in the CCC. They take particularly disadvantaged young people or young people who have struggled in some way in their communities. They put them in an environment where they are doing conservation work in a team-based model as a way of giving them job training skills and a stipend and a path to future employment and just an opportunity to better their own individual situation in life. So those are the conservation corps that typically we talk about within AmeriCorps. They’re very environmentally focused. And then we also have a program called the NCCC, which is the National Civilian Community Corps. That is a residential program. Young people go off in teams, it is run by the federal government, and there are five campuses across the country.

Beyond the conservation corps and the NCCC, we also have AmeriCorps programs operating in education, public safety, and healthcare. So really going beyond the bricks and mortar and environment into other issue areas.

On a philosophical level, how is the thinking behind AmeriCorps and its guiding principles the same or different from those of the CCC?

I think that AmeriCorps is very similar to the CCC in that both are or were an opportunity to become engaged, to gain some employment, to help support your family as well as to make long-lasting improvements in our country. It’s a way not only to give back but also an opportunity to learn and to prepare for the future. So there are very similar things happening philosophically.

Are the accomplishments of the CCC an inspiration to your current volunteers?

Absolutely. I think particularly for our western programs where they’re able to take their members out to either a national park or a building or something that was touched by the CCC and they can see a CCC plaque, there’s this tremendous connection to being part of a long-term movement. Some of our programs, when they hold events, they actually invite members of local CCC chapters — there are still many across the country. When those older gentlemen will come and join them in events, it’s really something special for AmeriCorps members to be able to make the connection and to learn what that experience meant for those young men and also how it shaped their lives over time.

Do you think there’s been a shift in thinking around federal investment in public service programs?

I think that people on Capitol Hill — policy makers, legislators — are beginning to make that shift. You know, I don’t think it was a mistake that we had $200 million in the Recovery Act for national service. When you talk about economic stimulus and you talk about the Recovery Act investing in individuals doing service, it’s not only an investment in the community, but also an investment in the individual and a path to future employment. So I do think that shift is happening.

The CCC was the fastest mobilization of workers in American history. How does the current political and social climate and economic crisis inform how you recruit volunteers/workers? How have you seen this change or evolve?

The Kennedy Serve America Act, which reauthorizes the Corporation and starts a couple of new programs, really focused on the importance of national service as a strategy to provide people with opportunities to give back and to improve their communities. It has a focus on increasing from 75,000 AmeriCorps members to 250,000 AmeriCorps members by 2017. So there is this long-term strategy to really build the ranks of AmeriCorps and to have people see it as an opportunity to become engaged in community.

At the same time, given our current economic situation, we were part of the Recovery Act. AmeriCorps VISTA and AmeriCorps State and National, our grant programs both received funds. And what we’ve seen in that is this tremendous ability over the last six months to recruit and place over 3,000 VISTAs in communities across the country. We’ve done the same in terms of providing $85 million worth of grant funding to our programs so that they can engage additional young people in their communities. And when you look at our statistics for applications, that has risen in the last six months over 200 percent in terms of the number of people who are applying for these positions. So it really is an increase not only in the number, but we think in the different kinds and qualities of people who are applying. A lot of people who are either in job transitions or who are really educated and are looking for a way to give back. So some of our programs that require a college education, for example, are seeing a real uptick in the number of applicants.

On a personal level, you have a long history of working with groups that advocate public service. How has the notion of work in public service and public works projects evolved in American society? How are attitudes the same/different since the 1930s?

I think over the course of my career there’s been a renewed recognition, that public service is not only a year-long opportunity, but also an opportunity for a lifetime. We’ve seen many of our members continue to stay engaged in the issue area where they are engaged as AmeriCorps members. So a lot of our education tutors either go back to school and become teachers or end up working for the YMCA or Big Brothers Big Sisters — really continuing the work that they started in service. AmeriCorps is an onramp to that sort of public good career. That I think has been a shift over time. What we’ve also seen is that when young people are completing their high school education and going on to college, colleges are really looking at whether or not people have volunteered — how active they have been in doing some kind of community service. So I think, at least in my career, there’s this shift to seeing public service not only as an opportunity for a life-long career, but also the importance of really becoming engaged in your communities at whatever place in life you are, and to be choosing national service as a way to do that.