Anyone watching Washington's prolonged partisan stalemate can be forgiven for concluding that America has lost the capacity to confront its biggest challenges.
President Clinton inducts the first class of AmeriCorps recruits on the White House steps in September 1994. (Courtesy of the Clinton Foundation)But that judgment doesn't account for Jeff Lafata. When Lafata, now 33, finished high school in 1999, just north of Boston, he joined AmeriCorps, the federal program that enlists volunteers to engage in national service. Working with City Year, an organization that deploys young people to mentor students in high-poverty schools, Lafata spent one year in a special-education classroom and another year coordinating other volunteers.
The experience, he recalled this week, "drastically changed my life." Lafata spent the next decade mostly working with institutions aiding the disabled, and then in 2011 he founded his own group, Empowering People for Inclusive Communities. EPIC operates with a twist: It mobilizes disabled young people to perform service themselves, from repainting schools to feeding the homeless. "Knowing what I got from being an AmeriCorps member "¦ [I felt] this was an opportunity that young people with disabilities needed," Lafata says.
He is one of 900,000 people who have served in AmeriCorps since President Clinton inducted the first class of recruits on Sept. 12, 1994, 20 years ago this week. AmeriCorps, and the Corporation for National and Community Service that administers it, are celebrating that anniversary with events in all 50 states and D.C.
The timing could not be more opportune. No matter which side gains in November, it's virtually assured that divisions between the two parties will paralyze Washington through 2016—and likely beyond. Yet the vitality of AmeriCorps powerfully reminds us that while the national political system is stuck, Americans at the grassroots are still demonstrating tenacity and creativity in addressing their communities' toughest problems. "We need to remind people we are all in this together, and if we can figure out how to work across all of those differences, we can make progress," says AnnMaura Connolly, the chief strategy officer at City Year. "AmeriCorps volunteers are showing the country that it can be done."
City Year itself embodies that promise. The program sends teams of diverse young mentors to 250 struggling schools, where they support at-risk students through services from early-morning homework sessions to small-group tutoring and after-school clubs. "We joke that they only work half time: That's 12 hours a day," says Connolly, who also serves as president of the coalition group Voices for National Service. All 2,800 of City Year's young mentors are funded by AmeriCorps.
AmeriCorps also supports all of the participants in the popular Teach for America program and provides a steady flow of personnel for other volunteer-driven initiatives such as Habitat for Humanity. In return for their service, the roughly 75,000 AmeriCorps participants receive a modest stipend (from $12,000 to $20,000) and college financial aid. Yet the program receives five applicants for each one it has the budget to accept. "We could certainly do more—I think a lot more—because you have 20 years of [experience for] organizations that now know how to run this program," says Wendy Spencer, the CNCS chief executive officer.
More resources, though, aren't coming any time soon for AmeriCorps, which has fallen into the partisan cross fire over the federal budget. Traditionally, the program had enjoyed support from both parties. George H.W. Bush signed legislation authorizing national-service pilot programs; Clinton championed and signed the bill creating AmeriCorps itself; George W. Bush expanded it after 9/11; President Obama temporarily enlarged it further with his stimulus plan and signed 2009 legislation that envisioned permanently tripling its size to 250,000 annual participants. But in a triumph of ideology over experience, the Republican-controlled House has repeatedly voted to eliminate its funding; and while Obama has defended the program, he hasn't pushed for big spending increases, either. Caught in the standoff, AmeriCorps isn't growing to meet the bulging demand to participate.
Obama has made more progress in formulating creative partnerships to extend the program's reach. AmeriCorps is cooperating in new ways with other federal agencies, such as the Justice Department, which is launching a joint program to recruit lawyers and paralegals to represent unaccompanied minors apprehended at the southern border. Even more inventive is AmeriCorps' partnership with the Citi Foundation, which is providing $10 million over three years to pay stipends for 225 people who will work in community-service organizations serving at-risk youth; AmeriCorps will cover the recruits' educational benefits. That could provide a model for other fruitful private-sector partnerships.
Yet, without more public funding to enlarge AmeriCorps, the nation can't fully tap the powerful impulse toward service among young people. That investment pays compounding dividends in the striking number of AmeriCorps alumni, like Lafata, who have remained committed to service. If Washington can't come together itself to confront America's toughest problems, the least it can do is empower ordinary Americans to fill that vacuum by increasing the opportunity to serve.