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President Trump, Let’s Make A Deal... To Save AmeriCorps

I believe that when Americans – especially young people – have meaningful opportunities to serve their community and country, everyone wins. Driven by this belief, I’ve spent the majority of my life working to create opportunities for such service.

This month the White House released its 2018 budget blueprint. As has been widely reported, the new budget proposes a significant increase for military spending, and reduces spending on several programs and agencies like the EPA, the State Department, the Department of Agriculture, and others. The budget proposes cutting other programs entirely. Among the programs slated to be cut altogether is AmeriCorps, a program that supports young people to do a year of civic service in communities around the country.

We need AmeriCorps, and we need a plan to save it. Hearing demands for cuts to spending and bureaucracy on one side, and calls for programs to remain intact on the other, I’d like to propose a compromise. So President Trump, let’s make a deal.

But first, a little background:

In 1991, I was appointed by then President George H.W. Bush to serve on the Commission for National Service. This commission served as the launching pad for what we now know as the Corporation for National Service and AmeriCorps. While AmeriCorps was eventually launched under President Clinton, few people remember that the groundwork for the current vision of National Service actually came from President Bush.

A defining ideal behind AmeriCorps was the term “Big Citizenship” (as opposed to “Big Government”). The term, coined by Michael Brown, co-founder of City Year, put front and center the idea that AmeriCorps was about both getting things done and citizen development. The AmeriCorps model created opportunities for volunteers to give a year of service with a non-profit or community agency and receive, in turn, a greater sense of civic participation.

As the years have gone by, the political climate has changed. And so, the focus of AmeriCorps has increasingly focused on proving programmatic worth and documenting success.

Not surprisingly, this pressure has led to a build up in bureaucracy. I am aware of a number of programs that have terminated their participation with AmeriCorps as a result. These organizations determinized that the hoops they were required to jump through each year made their participation either not worth it or untenable. This reality points to the need for a change - not in terms of the service we do, but in how we administer the program.

Now we find ourselves faced with the task of saving national service. Many service advocates, including Voices of National Service (https://voicesforservice.org/), AmeriCorps Alums (http://www.americorpsalums.org/), and others are working to lift up the value of AmeriCorps and save this important program.

While many would like the program to remain unchanged, in the current political and economic climate, it is unrealistic to think that AmeriCorps will not have to change if it is to both survive and thrive.

So, here’s my proposal on how we could both cut back, and yet still save national service:

The Deal

If national service is about supporting service in our communities, let’s just do that. I mean what I say: let’s JUST do that.

Mr. President, Members of Congress, my fellow Americans, let’s make a deal:

  • Compromise on a meaningful budget that invests in national service and leverages more private sector support – currently the $1 billion investment leverages more than $1.2 billion.
  • With that $1 billion, let’s require a two to one match, pumping $3 billion into national service every year. This would create 250,000 service slots, which a bipartisan Congress approved 8 years ago but never funded.
  • Allocate those 250,000 slots to the states based on a formula. (This would do away with all National Direct grants.)
  • Have each state decide how to allocate those positions to non-profits throughout their state.
  • Rather than responding to a federal mandate, each state will be able to focus on issue areas that are important to them and allocate their service slots accordingly – tutoring and mentoring students in low-performing schools, helping veterans reintegrate when they return home, conserving rivers and parks, and more.
  • Non-profit agencies will apply to their state for the positions.
  • Sponsoring agencies will be required to match a minimum of $2,500 per member to be added to the $10,000 stipend provided for each AmeriCorps position.
  • Sponsoring organizations would be required to contribute a minimum of $2,500 and as much as $10,000 to AmeriCorps members who successfully complete their year of service for an education award.
  • Expand opportunities for faith-based communities to participate in AmeriCorps.

In the process, we will:

  • Replace the Corporation of National Service with a much smaller staff focused mainly on administrative functions (similar to the offices that administer Federal Work Study).
  • Put on hold the programs directly run by the Corporation like the National Civilian Conservation Corps and the Social Innovation Fund. They do good work but at a time of cost saving and streamlining, they may need to be put on hold.
  • Do away with the National Service Trust and replace it with a private savings account that service corps members can contribute towards.
  • Eliminate the cumbersome and ineffective paperwork and reporting system that AmeriCorps has put in place.
  • Simplify the monitoring process at the federal level by focusing on time sheets rather than progress reports similar to what the Federal Work Study Program does.

Through this approach, we will:

  • Leverage the private sector to meet the Congressionally supported commitment of 250,000 AmeriCorps positions in America.
  • Put the decision-making in the hands of state and local communities.
  • Redesign and renew a lean operational structure that focus on making AmeriCorps successful.
  • Present a compromise that might just work.

The hope is that this approach will address the concerns of those who feel like AmeriCorps has become too bureaucratic, as well as gain the support of faith-based leaders who, for the most part, have not been able to access national service and AmeriCorps. This plan will appeal to those who want to maintain the service that is being provided, but want to eliminate the federal involvement and regulation of a what is a community-based program. And most importantly, it will provide a viable option for those policy makers who want to save national service such as AmeriCorps, but who are operating in a political climate that is threatening to eliminate it.

Some will think that we can keep what we have if we just push hard enough. Many won’t like this proposal because it will dramatically change the industry they have built and inhabit. But if we try to preserve what we know simply because it is what we know it, we run the risk of losing the whole thing.

Let’s save the essence of national service, which is hearts engaged, hands at work and feet on the ground. The leadership for the movement will have to come from the place where it has always belonged: both inside and outside of the government.

The leadership of the National Service movement need to communicate a vision that captures the conviction and commitment of today’s young people and others like them and provide a way for Americans to serve their country, strength their communities and live into lives as Big Citizens. It is called national service and we need it now more than ever.

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