Every few years it becomes politically expeditious for legislators to show interest in community and national service. This happens on the local, state and national levels, with bevies of new program proposals, heaps of new money suggested, and tons of interest swelled forth from the bowels of the media. This month marks the start of another such season with the introduction of the Kennedy/Hatch “Serve America Act,” (pdf) supported by both presidential candidates.
I spent three years in AmeriCorps. During that time I started a tutoring and mentoring program for Kurdish and Iraqi refugee kids in Lincoln, Nebraska; ran a ropes challenge course for low-income kids in and around Tacoma, Washington, and; served as an AmeriCorps Leader with a youth corps in north New Mexico. Exhilarating and exhausting work, all of it, that continues to inform my practice and inspire my imagination today. Oh, and I have contracted with AmeriCorps programs for a variety of reasons since, as well, providing training, developing evaluations and consulting on program development in communities across the US, as well as contracting directly with the Corporation for National Service and its successors to do the same.
With that requisite prerequisite out of the way, I feel compelled to provide an alternative to the either/or uplifting and bashing that happens in the mainstream dialog about this work. My concern stems from the cyclical nature of the interest shown in national service that has emerged since the inception of AmeriCorps in 1994, and prior to that as well. The dilemma inherent in that wavering has direct impact on the individuals and organizations affected by the program: without a constant stream of sustainability weaved into it, our communities are being told their needs are secondary to those of politicians, particularly in the initially partisan responses that always seem to be the first out of the shoot when new proposals come forth. The consequential outcome are hagared and weary programs that feel at once compelled and unable to respond to the whims of the elected few. They are continuously forced to provide success stories, elaborate on program outcomes and generate new successes on menial budgets that actually serve to undo the good work being done by Members everday. In turn this undermines the faith of the communities they serve, actually furthering the poverty mentality and collective depression apparent in many of the communities where AmeriCorps is at work.
I would like to propose a radical alternative to this apparent spasticity: Those organizations that are currently in alignment with AmeriCorps and who rely on the program to provide the vital dollars needed to leverage change in their communities should work together to create a funding network. Perhaps it would have the leverage of the United Way, only with the singular focus of funding community service. Maybe it could become completely volunteer-driven, moving away from the missionary ideology that sacrifices the power of self-driven transformation for the sake of well-meaning white people. I’m not sure. But any way it goes, get off the federal and state government teat and take responsibility for funding ourselves.
This may be too radical, and too far out for many. But let’s at least begin to consider the possibility of moving beyond the expectation that the government has the leadership capacity and/or the political will to actually create sustainable programming over the long run. There are many cynical analyses that could be thrown in here (including the air force bake sale suggestion, as well as the “Peace Corps as national defense” angle) but I will avoid those. Instead, let’s move forward. What does that look like for you?