Speech by Harris Wofford on the History of National Service in America

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By Admin1 (admin) on Friday, September 14, 2001 - 12:44 pm: Edit Post

Speech by Harris Wofford on the History of National Service in America

Speech by Harris Wofford on the History of National Service in America

To My Colleagues,

Before my term as CEO of the Corporation for National Service ends at noon tomorrow, I want to tell you how proud I am of what you have accomplished. Thank you for helping National Service and the Corporation move forward so successfully on so many fronts in these last five years.

I am attaching a short chronology of National Service in the 1990s, but the story of National Service in America in the 20th century begins with William James' 1910 essay,

The Moral Equivalent of War. Its first big embodiment was the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s. Then came the Peace Corps and VISTA in the sixties and the percolating up of many state and local youth service corps in the seventies and eighties.

Forty years ago, in sending off the first Peace Corps volunteers, President Kennedy said that "someday we will bring this idea home to America." That day has come. This year there are more than 40,000 AmeriCorps members, most of them young like Peace Corps volunteers, serving their communities in more than a thousand non-profit organizations; there are a half-million older Americans of the National Senior Service Corps serving as Foster Grandparents, Senior Companions, or RSVP volunteers; and far

more than one million college, secondary, and elementary students in community service-learning programs assisted by the Corporation for National Service. Around the

country, on the frontlines of America's hardest problems, together we are living up to our watch words: "Getting Things Done."

For all that and more we can be proud and grateful - and perhaps amazed that so many Americans have volunteered and so much has been done with so little public recognition. In the words of Bob Dylan's Ballad of a Thin Man, "Something is happening

here and you don't know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?"

Let me spell out what I mean, not as a complaint but as a challenge to all of us to figure out how to do better in telling the story of National Service - and in writing new

chapters in the 21st century:

* How many people know that, without the fanfare given Peace Corps volunteers in the early sixties, some 200,000 men and women have enlisted in AmeriCorps in the last seven years - more than the total of Peace Corps volunteers in 40 years? How many know that this year AmeriCorps and its sponsoring organizations are seeking to recruit more AmeriCorps members than the Marines?

* * People recall reading that President Clinton's "pet program" - AmeriCorps - was in trouble in Congress and that its budget was being zeroed out by the new Republican majority. But how many people know that after the battles following the 1994 election, the programs of the Corporation, including AmeriCorps, emerged intact, bipartisan support grew, and in each year since 1996 the Corporation's annual budget has increased - to $767 million today?

* * How many people know that after seeing the work of AmeriCorps members, former Republican critics such as John McCain, John Kasich, and Dan Coats changed their minds? Or that out of his experience with the Corporation in the convening of the 1997

Presidents' Summit in Philadelphia and in carrying on the campaign for America's Promise, General Powell has become one of our leading champions. "AmeriCorps," Powell told the nation's Governors "is a tremendous investment in young people, a tremendous investment in the future, and I am a strong supporter."

* * People heard both Presidential candidates propose a greater role - and greater resources - for non-profit, educational, charitable and faith-based organizations in solving our serious problems. How many know that almost all of the National Service programs of the Corporation are providing the important resource of people power to help the civic sector play that larger role? The Senior Service programs have always done that - as has VISTA, now a vital part of AmeriCorps. Through AmeriCorps, Boys &

Girls Clubs, Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, the Catholic Network of Volunteer Service, and a myriad of other non-profits that are sponsoring AmeriCorps members have discovered the great value of their dedicated service and they ask for more. Full-time AmeriCorps members help generate, organize, and in other ways leverage the use of larger numbers of traditional volunteers.

* * When will politicians and the public come to understand that unlike the Peace Corps,

the domestic Peace Corps called AmeriCorps is an extraordinary model of a decentralized, public-private partnership in which government is not the managing partner? The Peace Corps recruits, selects and administers the volunteers, but in AmeriCorps the sponsoring organizations do most of the recruiting, and do all of the selecting, assigning and supervising of their AmeriCorps members. And instead of the allocation of members being determined in Washington, most such decisions are made by Governor-appointed state commissions.

* * How many know that in September at the urging of Montana Governor Marc Racicot (an active member of the Corporation's Board of Directors), the Governors of forty-nine states, including George W. Bush and all but one Republican Governor, called on Congress to support AmeriCorps and reauthorize the Corporation? They wrote:

Governors have built an outstanding state-federal partnership in operating national service programs. Governor-appointed state commissions that direct financial resources and membership within states are successfully administering AmeriCorps. As Governors, we recognize the value of national service as a tool in meeting important needs in our states. We have seen national service at work in our states. We do not want to lose this force for good in our communities, states, and country."

That statement by the nation's Governors demonstrates the progress we have made. Governor George W. Bush has supported the National Service programs in Texas administered by his Texas Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service. In joining the letter to Congress, he indicated his readiness to continue the Corporation's programs, including AmeriCorps - while no doubt intending to put his own mark on them with proposals for improvement. In his presidential campaign, he called for a substantial and creative improvement and expansion of the Corporation's Senior Service programs. We can hope he will do the same with our other two streams of service - AmeriCorps and Service-Learning.

The transition to a new Administration will be a historic watershed for National Service. We will have lost the constant support given by President Clinton, who sees National Service as a defining idea for our time and who has been unstinting in his commitment. But the transition to a new President and new leadership at the Corporation will demonstrate that National Service is much larger than any one President. The Corporation will then be seen as a truly non-partisan institution that is a source of pride for Americans of all political beliefs, like the Armed Forces and the Peace Corps. That's why I am confident that we will emerge from this transition even stronger.

When I was sworn in as CEO of the Corporation a little more than five years ago, as I stood alongside AmeriCorps members in the East Room of the White House, I said:

"Back when Sargent Shriver was building the Peace Corps into a nonpartisan institution in which all Americans take pride, he used to lift our sights to the philosopher's vision that one day after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, after all the scientific and technological achievements, we shall harness the energies of love, and then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire. . . . That is what America -- and AmeriCorps -- is all about.

Together, young and old and those in between, with AmeriCorps as a new vital thrust, we are going to find the ways and means to make citizen service the common expectation and experience of every American."

We should be proud that - in new and bold forms - AmeriCorps, Service-Learning, and Senior Service are indeed proving to be vital thrusts in national renewal. But pride goeth before a fall. The last thing we should want to see is National Service coasting along at the present level, proud of our victory in becoming truly bipartisan and non-controversial. President Kennedy said the Peace Corps would become really serious when it reached the level of 100,000 volunteers per year. When Sargent Shriver left after five years as Peace Corps Director, the Corps was passing the 15,000 volunteer mark. Since then it has had regular Congressional support - but it dwindled to about 5,000 volunteers per year and only at President Clinton's urging is climbing back to 7,500.

Let's remember that the large numbers we celebrate pale by comparison with the record of the Civilian Conservation Corps. President Franklin Roosevelt in the Great Depression, learning that there were 500,000 unemployed young men out on the streets, established the CCC to get those "boys in the woods" - to restore public lands

and turn their lives around in the process. Within four months, under the leadership of Colonel George Marshall, there were more than 300,000 formerly unemployed young men in 1,600 CCC camps. By the time universal national service of the military kind was required in World War II, some three million young men had served in the CCC.

The problems of this new era are different. We are enjoying great national prosperity but also face great national needs. And the greatest of these needs, I believe, is the need for young people to serve, not just be served; to see themselves not as problems but as problem-solvers; to learn citizenship by being active duty citizens; to ask not what others can do for them, but what they can do for others. That is what the CCC did and meant in its day. It is what National Service on an equivalent scale can do and mean today.

How do we find the ways and means to achieve National Service on an equivalent of scale? How do we take the idea and the reality from the periphery of public attention to the center? How do we get people and the Congress and the President of the United States to see it as an effective - even crucial - strategy for achieving great community and national goals? And how do we do it not just through the federal government but above all through the creative power of the civic sector in partnership with the corporate sector and with government at all levels?

I hope the day will come when - as a City Year-AmeriCorps member put it - a young person coming of age will commonly ask not "Will I do a year of service?" but "Where will I do my service year?" Working together for an intense period of full-time service is

probably the most transforming experience for the participants and is most likely to make major contributions to meeting the needs of the community. But I am not imagining AmeriCorps as the sole engine of National Service. The other way for service

to become a common expectation and common experience on a large scale is to make service-learning a part of the curriculum of every school and every student.

We have kept the rocket that Congress and Presidents Bush and Clinton sent off in the National Service Acts of 1990 and 1993 from being shot down. The new century calls for that rocket - and new rockets - to surge up to the far higher stage where citizen service truly becomes a universal opportunity and a common expectation.

* * *

After more than 50 years of engagement with these questions, I know the road to our goals is long and difficult, and the headwinds are strong. But after all the good and hard times we have had together, I promise to stay on the road with you.

As an active member of the new National Commission on Service Learning chaired by former Senator John Glenn, I want your suggestions. The Commission was established and will be funded by the Kellogg Foundation as a sustained effort to persuade schools, teachers, parents and students that service-learning in the community should be an essential part of every student's education. From time to time, I will be on call to help America's Promise, the Points of Light Foundation, Youth Service America and our other partners in National Service, as well as all the programs of the Corporation. And I will try to help by putting pen to paper in a would-be writer's pursuit of the hard questions in this letter.

Never have I had more fun, never have I worked with a team that I respected more - including Wendy Zenker who I leave in charge during the transition, and the devoted Board of Directors of the Corporation, led by Bob Rogers - and to all of you my colleagues.

You have my warmest thanks and very good wishes.

-- Harris Wofford"

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By J.N. on Tuesday, September 16, 2003 - 1:37 am: Edit Post

Having had the distinct privilege and pleasure of serving under Harris' leadership in the Peace Corps - the Ethiopia I project, which was the largest single contingent of PCV's ever trained and sent to a single country; then or since - I envy those who have shared this latest service to our nation. With so many dedicated and motivated people serving in the trenches of our "PEACEfare", and accomplishing so much with so relatively little in resources, it's only a shame that our politically elected and appointed officials can't find their way to make more determined and consistent commitments to such efforts. And it is, as well, a shame that so many of our young can't be bothered exercising that very precious right of VOTING; a right that many in our generation worked so hard, and even gave their lives, for. The entire basis of our campaign for the 18 year old vote was: "If we're old enough to get drafted and serve the military, we're old enough to have a say!" Don't abuse - or worse, throw away - that sacred privilege.

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