Editor’s Note: David Gergen has been a White House adviser to four presidents and is a senior political analyst at CNN. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he founded the Center for Public Leadership. Caroline Cohen, a recent honors graduate of Harvard College and winner of the Thomas T. Hoopes prize for her senior thesis, is David Gergen’s research assistant at the Harvard Kennedy School. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
Joe Biden is far from the first president to call for national unity – Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama also sounded that trumpet, and even Donald Trump paid lip service to unity in his inaugural address. What distinguishes Biden and his allies on Capitol Hill and beyond is that they are trying a different approach to unifying the country: they are backing up words with concrete actions. Or, to put it bluntly, they are putting federal money where their mouths are.
As part of the Covid relief package last week, Democrats approved an infusion of $1 billion for AmeriCorps, the umbrella organization for national service helping to support a network of more than 2,000 nonprofits, faith-based and community organizations. That, according to AmeriCorps’ press secretary Samantha Jo Warfield, is the biggest single increase in the program’s history, nearly doubling the budget of the organization, and is squarely aimed at helping the victims of the pandemic and the nation recover.
National service is the rare policy that can both unite Americans in a common call and bring back communities decimated by the cascade of crises we now face. And recent months have shown what good AmeriCorps can do for our country.
In May 2020, as the pandemic continued to tighten its grip, over 800 AmeriCorps members in Colorado partnered with the state government to help conduct contract tracing. Volunteers provided surge capacity for case investigation, assisted in referring patients to local public health entities and worked with residents to assess symptoms and provide information on quarantine measures. Sarah Tuneberg, a Colorado Covid-19 Innovation Response Team Lead, described AmericaCorps volunteers as “essential to assisting the State of Colorado and the Covid response” during an unprecedented time.
In Arizona, AmeriCorps members stepped in to assist the Chinle Chapter Government of the Navajo Nation in responding to the pandemic. Native American communities have been hit particularly hard by the virus, both due to the underlying chronic health problems many community members face and because many components of tribal economies – gambling and tourism among them – were devastated in the past year. AmeriCorps volunteers, working alongside partnering nonprofits, stepped in to deliver food to families in need and provide essential goods to seniors.
All told, according to AmeriCorps’ Warfield, tens of thousands of AmeriCorps members have given millions of hours toward Covid relief, reaching millions of people in their efforts. Since the pandemic began, AmeriCorps told us it has distributed 32,000 tons of food and provided educational programming to hundreds of thousands of students, both virtually and in-person. Alabama volunteer Eden Williamson said her work in educational support gave her “a chance to make a difference in the life of a child and see possibilities instead of limitations.”
AmeriCorps says members have also been a lifeline to isolated seniors and a guide for those newly in need, navigating the complicated network of services. In Florida, for example, Andrea Kent delivered care packages to low-income seniors and facilitated “Lawn Chair” conversations with them. There, she listened intently to their concerns and made sure their needs were met afterward, often checking in after-hours to make sure they were feeling supported in a challenging time.
Even as we begin to see the light, AmeriCorps volunteers continue to contribute to our communities. In recent weeks, Warfield says more than 500 members are supporting vaccination sites in a dozen states, assisting more than 350,000 people at vaccination sites across the nation.
These stories of AmeriCorps volunteers during the pandemic are rekindling a dream that has appealed to many conservatives and liberals since the Great Depression: a dream that one day every young person in the United States between 18 and 25 would volunteer at least a year in service to community and nation.
Famously, former President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps in the spring of 1933 with the goal of enlisting 250,000 young men to work in dilapidated parks and forests across America by early summer. At its height, in August 1935, 500,000 were enrolled. While it had flaws, the CCC became one of the most popular programs of the New Deal, eventually enlisting nearly 3 million young men who bonded with their counterparts through public service.
Since then, presidents of both parties have pursued parallel ideas. John F. Kennedy started the Peace Corps; George H.W. Bush gave us Points of Light, a network supporting volunteer organizations across the world; and Bill Clinton created AmeriCorps. Today, AmeriCorps allows people of all ages to serve communities across the country, providing health benefits, living stipends, and educational awards to members in return for their service.
Importantly, momentum is now building on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue for a much stronger national service program. On Capitol Hill, a bipartisan alliance of US senators — nine Republicans, eight Democrats and one Independent — is led with resolve and passion by Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware and Republican Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi. At the White House, key presidential advisers like Ron Klain and Bruce Reed have been long-time supporters. As are outstanding guardians of national security like former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, General Stanley McChrystal, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and the late Secretary of State George Shultz.
Most of these AmeriCorps allies are working to make that $1 billion increase a “downpayment,” as Sen. Coons says. Within a few years, they hope that we can actually grow the number of AmeriCorps volunteers from 75,000 a year to 250,000, the goal set by a large bipartisan majority more than a decade ago in the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. The hunger is there among the young: By the latest count, AmeriCorps organizations receive four to five times as many applications as they can accept — and the numbers are growing.
Victor Hugo once wrote: “There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an Idea whose time has come.” National service has not yet become that powerful an idea — but it is certainly moving in the right direction.