Yesterday, the President signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act at a ceremony in a Washington, DC charter school that has reclaimed a violence-ridden block. The Act will triple the size of AmeriCorps (if Congress appropriates adequate funds) and will direct the corps members to work on major national challenges: the high school dropout rate, energy conservation, and health disparities. Today’s coverage of the bill and the signing ceremony–predictably–concentrates on the personal interactions among Obama, the eponymous Senator Kennedy, and President Clinton, who planted a tree as part of the day’s events. There’s also some coverage of Michelle Obama’s background as an AmeriCorps grantee, which is appropriate. I would have liked (but didn’t expect) a little more discussion of what “service” is, how it is changing, and what it can accomplish or not accomplish.
Note that the president naturally shifts from talking about direct service to themes of justice, organizing, and social change. In the campaign, he used the phrase “service and active citizenship”; and yesterday he said:
When I moved to Chicago more than two decades ago to become a community organizer, I wasn’t sure what was waiting for me there, but I had always been inspired by the stories of the civil rights movement, and President Kennedy’s call to service, and I knew I wanted to do my part to advance the cause of justice and equality.
And it wasn’t easy, but eventually, over time, working with leaders from all across these communities, we began to make a difference — in neighborhoods that had been devastated by steel plants that had closed down and jobs that had dried up. We began to see a real impact in people’s lives. And I came to realize I wasn’t just helping people, I was receiving something in return, because through service I found a community that embraced me, citizenship that was meaningful, the direction that I had been seeking. I discovered how my own improbable story fit into the larger story of America.
It’s the same spirit of service I’ve seen across this country. I’ve met countless people of all ages and walks of life who want nothing more than to do their part. I’ve seen a rising generation of young people work and volunteer and turn out in record numbers. They’re a generation that came of age amidst the horrors of 9/11 and Katrina, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an economic crisis without precedent. And yet, despite all this — or more likely because of it — they’ve become a generation of activists possessed with that most American of ideas, that people who love their country can change it.
“Service” sometimes means serving soup to homeless people or cleaning up a stream–valuable but limited activities. The president talks instead about working with diverse people to address really serious, core problems, such as urban poverty–and to build institutions, such as the SEED charter school. The Act favors such activities, but the AmeriCorps programs will have to change to encourage real public work, planning, learning, and deliberation. The default will be lots of new miscellaneous and temporary positions that provide direct human services. I don’t think anyone inside the modern “service” movement would be satisfied with the default, but we will have to work to avoid it.