Hamblin: When the Civilian Conservation Corps was up and running in the 1930s, people enlisted. They got outfits and a badge and they were going off to do this thing for the country. There were overtones of military aspects and national pride: You’re going to work to build our country. I think conservation tends to not have a ton of bipartisan support these days. I wonder if there’s a way to kind of harness some of that national pride, or whatever was able to come together for us in the 1930s, in this moment?
Coons: There’s been a broad movement among veterans and military leaders, business, private sector leaders, Republican and Democrat, to support the idea of national service as a way of bringing our country together, as a way of helping younger people have the experience of being with and serving our nation alongside people from other regions and other backgrounds. My own father was a sergeant in the 1st Infantry in Germany, and for the rest of his life, he talked about that two-year experience he had of serving alongside men from other religions, from other regions, from other races. For a Protestant white kid from Boston, that was really the first time in his life he understood what it meant to be an American. Sure, he understood that being in the Army was part of serving our country, but I don’t think he really had an appreciation for our nation before that.
And I saw the same experience with the young people who I helped recruit and train and support in the Americorps program that I led in the early ’90s. They were mostly working in schools, in tough inner city schools, providing tutoring and mentoring and after-school programing. Whether AmeriCorps members are helping with disaster recovery or tutoring or building homes, I have found over and over: it strengthens their own skills and sense of connectivity, but it also strengthens their sense of national pride. You mentioned the CCC had badges and uniforms. AmeriCorps also has logos and training and equipment that identifies them as AmeriCorps members and creates a sense of pride in the common work.
Hamblin: So when you have a program that’s doing these really localized, specialized efforts tailored to the needs of the community, how do you get national support?
Coons: AmeriCorps now has a nearly 30-year record of actually delivering results. There are senators and congressmen, mayors and governors, nonprofit leaders and business leaders who have seen the difference that YouthBuild, City Year, Habitat for Humanity, Food Corps have made in communities all over the country.
Hamblin: Well, this all sounds good. Is it going to happen?
Coons: I’ve worked in the last two months to recruit 16 co-sponsors: eight Republican co-sponsors and eight Democrats. And the Republicans run the gamut from well-known senators like Senators John Cornyn, Marco Rubio, and Lindsey Graham. My lead co-sponsor is Senator Roger Wicker, a conservative Republican who is also willing to support this program alongside me. I’ve got great Democrats as co-sponsors on this bill: folks like Jack Reed, Tammy Duckworth, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Amy Klobuchar.