The Real Reason We Need AmeriCorps Programs More Than Ever Right Now
By: Jordan Thomas
The first time I heard about AmeriCorps, I was in my senior year of college and had just accepted an officer to serve in Charlotte, NC with Teach for America (TFA), a national AmeriCorps program that allows adults to serve as teachers in inner city schools. At the time, I wasn’t sure what AmeriCorps was, other than that it was a federal government program that allowed me to receive $5,000 to apply to either college loans or pursuing a future academic endeavor at the end of my service.
I later learned that AmeriCorps is a national program funded by the Federal Department for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) that allows adults to participate in acts of service positively impacting communities in the US. While I would like to think that I wasn’t some naïve college student with the basic privilege that accompanies one attending an institution of higher education in the US, the truth is that I was.
I wasn’t ignorant… I kept up with current affairs and actually spent time familiarizing myself about the environment that I was about to be immersed in. I was fully aware that as a new teacher, I would be joining a new community full of students, teacher, and parents with their own opinions, concerns, and hopes for their children.
Through my training with TFA, I learned about what I might expect in my new environment and emphasized the history of education in Charlotte: the unbelievably low lack of compensation, the lack of adequate resources for public schools, the surprising number of schools unintentionally segregated by poverty or race, the controversial history of busing issues in city, and the fact that I would be teaching in the 13th largest school district in the country. Filled with an amalgamation of optimism, hope, and a yearning to give back, I enthusiastically accepted the challenge with hopes of creating transformational change.
Fast forward several months later and I admit that I previously had a false sense of reality; I knew that it would be hard, but it was impossible to fathom the complexity of the issue at hand. Educational inequity is one of the most complex issues facing our nation. I could have read every single book on education that existed, but until I experienced the issue first hand, I really couldn’t fully grasp the issue.
While important, sympathy can’t actually change the way you view an issue; only acquiring a sense of empathy through direct service has the ability to alter your pre-conceived notions. It’s the reasons that I encourage people to seek experiences that challenge them to step outside of their comfort zones.
For me, it was learning about the exceptional students that I would be teaching without a co-teacher during the full year or an epiphany as I realized what teachers finally meant by the phrase “every day is a new day”. I did not become an expert teacher by the end of my term (I was in fact very far from it and appreciated the support I received from several teachers), however, I will always take this experience with me.
Regardless whether I continue to “fight the good fight”, I will always equate any potential challenges in education reform with my time teaching my former students. I will always be engaged and concerned about the trajectory of our youth in this country, particularly for low-income and minorities students.
Like many fellow AmeriCorps alumni that I’ve developed a relationship with, if you fully immerse yourself in your year of service with a sense of vulnerability and receptiveness, you don’t just go through this exhaustive period of time and not become a different person. Your understanding of the issue(s) that you were working on will forever be altered by obtaining a humane perception, only generated through interpersonal interactions.
The Trump Administration’s Office of Management and Budget has previously hinted at requesting Congress to significantly reduce or eliminate the budget for AmeriCorps under the CNCS. A decision by the Administration to do so would not only discredit the phenomenal work accomplished by AmeriCorps alumni since the inception of the program in 1994 and the countless communities positively impacted by the federal agency, but it would also discredit the notion that service, citizenship, and beneficent acts are fundamental values in our society.
Never mind that AmeriCorps partners with employers allow thousands of young people to enter the workforce; never mind that more than 1 million alumni have acquired education grants totaling $2.4 billion or that AmeriCorps offers loan forbearance in an era when crippling student loan debt makes it inconvenient to pursue an occupation emphasizing public service; never mind the alumni that continue to service communities in need and altered their prior career paths after their term of service ended. For a moment, don’t even consider the communities that are being served.
In this dangerous era where ignorance and inept judgments are considered “facts”, we must focus on changing the narrative of vulnerable communities affected by the work. The notion of unintelligent as popular from our political leadership, will make it easier for Americans to believe the insensitive rhetoric about these communities over the next four years. We need AmeriCorps programs to alter the narrative about the way we converse about these communities being served and help bring forth a new era of cultured, politically aware, and civically engaged citizens.
In my opinion, the danger of the perception of a single narrative has never been more paramount and we must continue to promote educations citizens with multifaceted experiences. If we want to continue to alter the narrative of vulnerable communities in this country, allow adults of all ages to develop diverse experiences that positively impact our communities, and help bring a voice to communities suffering from social, economic, and political injustice, it starts with funding AmeriCorps programs to cultivate and foster civic engagement.
Photo Credit: Danny Sellers