Episode 1: Serving in Common Purpose
Today, on the very first episode of Rebuilding America, Ken talks to Pete Buttigieg, former candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Congresswoman Chrissy Houlahan, representative from Pennsylvania’s 6th District.
The alumni testimonial this week is from Yasmeen Shaheen-McConnell, the Managing Director of Strategic Engagement for Service Year Alliance and an alum of the Arab American Resource Corps.
Ken Harbaugh: A service year is a paid opportunity to develop real-world skills through hands-on service. Explore thousands of available service year opportunities at ServiceYear.org/podcast.
Welcome to Rebuilding America, produced in partnership with New Politics. We’re here to talk about national service: what is it, why do we need it, and can it rebuild America?
Each week on Rebuilding America, we’ll focus on the idea of service from a different angle - from local communities to the national stage, from social justice to public health, from storytelling and journalism to foreign service. We’ll hear from one or two experts in the national service movement, as well as an alum of a service program, to get an intimate look at the positive impact of service on those who step up.
Today, for our very first episode of Rebuilding America, I’m talking to Pete Buttigieg, former candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Congresswoman Chrissy Houlahan, representative from Pennsylvania’s 6th District. Between my conversations with Chrissy and Pete, we’ll also hear an alumni testimonial from Yasmeen Shaheen-McConnell, the Managing Director of Strategic Engagement for Service Year Alliance and an alum of the Arab American Resource Corps.
First, hear my conversation with Representative Houlahan. Service runs in her family’s blood. The daughter and granddaughter of Naval aviators, Chrissy served first in the Air Force and then in Teach for America, before going on to serve her constituents in Congress.
Chrissy Houlahan: I was raised in a family of service. My dad was a career Naval aviator. He actually met my mother through my grandfather's squadron. My grandfather was the skipper of my one of my dad's first squadrons and my grandfather served a career of more than 30 years as well, also as a Naval aviator ,and so I did follow in that family business footsteps, along with my brother and several of my cousins who are still actually active duty, who have served in a variety of different branches of the service, so I served as an engineer in the Air Force and just hope in my life and not just in my military service, to live a life that hopefully leaves the place better because I was there, and so that's what I've been trying to do throughout my career.
KH: You parlayed that experience in the Air Force as an engineer to an incredibly successful stint as an entrepreneur and then went from that to Teach For America. You made the leap from being COO of a 100-million-plus company to the classroom. Why?
CH: So when I helped grow AND1, and we grew it from basically start-up - AND1 Basketball was the name of the company that I helped to run - we grew it from start-up to about 250 million in revenues. In that process of growing that company, I really wanted to focus as the chief operating officer, of course, on the bottom line, but also on making sure that we were taking care of people and planet as well, so we were growing a corporately socially responsible business at the time and when I pivoted out of that business when it was sold, I really wanted to make sure that I took my operational skills into education and I thought the best way to be able to do that was to first be able to understand and empathize with what teachers were asked to do and as a person in her mid-40s, the best path that I thought I could take to understand that and to be able to have that experience was to join the Teach For America organization through AmeriCorps and to serve in that way. That opportunity was exactly what I was looking for in the sense that it gave me insight into how incredibly challenging it is to be a teacher right now, how incredibly undervalued educators are and how the world is falling around their shoulders. All that is going on around the classroom, largely out of their control ends up living in the classroom for them and in that experience what I learned is that it's very, very hard to teach 11th-grade chemistry, which was what I was doing, to children who are reading at the third and fourth-grade level, which were largely the kids that I was teaching, their level of proficiency, and so for the last four or five years before running for Congress, I helped to scale another organization, again as the operator, finance, kind of president role that focused on pre-K through fourth-grade early childhood literacy in those most underserved communities, and that's what I was doing up until the election of 2016.
KH: Can you tell us a little bit about Teach For America and its dual missions, of course to bring talent to bear in classrooms like the one you're in, but also to, I guess, create a diaspora of teachers that will then go out and bring that experience into the work they do later in life? I mean, we have a Teach For America alum in Congress now because of that program.
CH: Yeah, and I think that that's a really important nuance to the importance of national service programs writ large, whether they're Peace Corps or City Year or TFA or Senior Corps or any of those kinds of things, they provide the opportunity for people who participate in those programs like me to be able to bring that experience back into their lives afterwards, to be able to say "You know what? I experienced a different kind of reality when I participated in the Peace Corps or a different kind of reality when I participated in TFA and I am now bringing that experience out to, as for me, particularly, as a member of Congress, or as a person in the corporate world, or as a person in any other version of your next step in life” and I think that's really essential. I think that national service like TFA provides a force-multiplying effect in that you're benefiting of course all of the children as an example that you're teaching, but it also really is a remarkable change to the person who's experiencing the service as well that you can't undervalue or under-appreciate.
KH: One of the criticisms you sometimes hear of national service programs and TFA in particular is that it - and I won't sugarcoat this, the criticism says that it dumbs down the profession, it assumes that all you need to transform a classroom is good intentions and a good resume. I want you to speak to that, but especially in the context of that second mission, which a lot of people don't appreciate. It's not only about the service element. It's about educating influencers. It's about you, the participant, Chrissy Houlahan, and what you can do with that experience later in life. Can you address the criticism?
CH: The criticism is fair and in many cases, it's real. That being said, I think the organization, AmeriCorps, is working hard to dispel those kinds of beliefs and problems and to work to make sure that we have an incredibly diverse set of folks who are coming into places like Teach For America. Many of the classmates that I joined in my corps membership actually stayed in the classroom, have stayed in the classroom, and/or have pivoted to very related areas of support within the classroom, whether it's administration or otherwise, so it is a really good pipeline for people who are interested in staying engaged in education. But to your point, I was unusual in the sense that I joined AmeriCorps in my mid-40s when my kids were in their early 20s, most of the corps members were in their early 20s, and my experience was of all of the things that I've done, whether it was serving in the military or growing businesses from scratch or being a mom, this was absolutely the hardest thing I was ever challenged to do was to be an educator and it gives me an enormous amount of appreciation and empathy of what it is that we ask our teachers to do and what it is we're asking of our children when they are under-resourced to do, and I hope that that has influenced how I lead and represent us here in Congress as well.
KH: Does your background, both in the Air Force and serving in the classroom change the way you interact with your fellow members in the halls of Congress, especially those who have also shared that service experience?
CH: I think that this diversity conversation is an important one because I think in Congress, as is probably in a lot of our nation, we can benefit from having a lot of different experiences. In Congress, I'm, of course, a woman. I'm one of about 20% of the Congress that are women. In Congress, I'm a veteran. I'm one of about 20% of the Congress who are veterans, and in Congress, I'm an engineer. I'm one of probably a dozen people who have STEM or STEAM backgrounds in the entire Congress and I'm one of just a few people who have educating experience as well and that diversity of experience definitely helps me to be able to understand issues that I'm being asked to legislate on and it also definitely helps me to be able to explain to folks who may not have had those experiences why it's important to make legislation more effective or why it's important to be able to have oversight in these areas, so I'd like to see our Congress be a lot more diverse in all of these different areas.
KH: In an ideal world, do you think that national service should be mandatory?
CH: I do not. I am one of the folks who believes that this ought to be an opt-in opportunity, but I do think that it should be pretty highly incentivized. I think that we should reward people who step forward in this way in the same way, frankly, that we do with military service, with GI Bill benefits of sorts and veterans benefits. I think that we should provide incentives for people, not just young people, but also folks in their mid-40s and even later the opportunity to be able to benefit from that service as well.
KH: If the end goal is a cultural shift to create a kind of societal expectation around service for young people, at least a rite of passage, what are some things that other institutions outside Congress can do non-legislatively to affect the culture in a way that this is something young people just expect of each other?
CH: That's a great question. I know for instance my children's school actually had a required community service aspect for graduation. I think that that is useful and I think it was a fair idea for them to be asked to do. My organization, AND1, we had 40 hours of community service or service in general that was allowed for everybody every year, so we basically gave an extra week of time for people to be able to do in their communities or wherever they'd like to do anything that they would like to do in service of their community, so if you're running a for-profit organization, I would ask that you consider providing people the opportunity to be helpful in their communities, and that's another thing that you can do. I think that there's a lot that we can do to make sure that we're elevating the importance of giving back to your community, whether you're running a company or running a school, you have opportunities to do that.
KH: You've now set your sights on expanding those service opportunities through legislation. I would love an update on the status of that, what you are able to share, and would also love to get a sense of how your fellow members understand the return on investment when it comes to national service. Is there now an awareness in a way that there wasn't just a few years ago that national service really is a win-win for the communities, for the participants, for the taxpayer? How is the fight to win hearts and minds going?
CH: Sure, and that's a great question. I mean, I think that national service historically has ebbed and flowed in its importance and the understanding of its importance and I think we're at another inflection point where I hope that people are starting to understand that it's an important part of the solution to the problems that we're experiencing. With this pandemic, we have definitely seen the inequities. We've definitely seen that we need to rush into this problem and it's an all-hands-on-deck kind of a thing and we can see that part of the solution can be deploying our national service ideals and ideas again and so I think that we are at a good place where people of all kinds, right and left, are starting to talk about the fact that we might be able to at least partially solve some of the issues that we're having right now with national service, and it's a question of finding that sweet spot, to be able to put forward some items of legislation that will work and appease all these different kinds of groups, so we've got several different versions of this that are floating around the Congress, but the good news is that they've got enormously interesting bipartisan support, all of them, and hopefully we'll be able to find something that works for everybody.
KH: What can you share in terms of the specific legislation? I certainly don't want you to jinx anything, but is there anything you can tell us about?
CH: Sure. There's a variety of different legislative proposals out there and some of them are not necessarily even legislative proposals. A first example is when the pandemic first hit, we had a situation where a lot of folks who were already in the field, so to speak, through AmeriCorps, whether Peace Corps or otherwise, were suddenly without a place to be and there was a bipartisan letter that I helped put together that also went from far left to far right saying we needed to make sure that we were taking care of those folks who were on the sidelines or being sidelined and make sure that we were taking care of their benefits, and that was a successful thing that was included in the CARES Act. We also, coincidentally, not related to the pandemic, just came through a process of having a national commission on service finish and complete their work. So a three-year-long commission delivered their recommendations right about when COVID hit. And those recommendations were put into a bill sponsored by Representative Panetta that I hope will gain some traction. I put forward similar language in the NDAA, or the Defense Authorization Act, and again, got bipartisan resounding support that we are at the place where we need to be having this conversation. The issue here in Congress is that all of the recommendations of the commission touch on a lot of different committees of jurisdiction, so getting our committees in sync to make sure that we can put together legislation through all of those committees is going to be the challenge there. Then on the Senate side, we've got Senator Coons, who's been leading an enormously successful bipartisan effort - a bill that he's called the CORE Act that's a ginormous national service play, which I'm very hopeful will be able to find a home on the House side as well.
KH: What is the appeal of national service across the aisle with Republican partners on this effort like Michael Waltz, who I believe you serve alongside as the co-vice-chair of the For Country Caucus? What about national service legislation brings those two sides together?
CH: Yes, there is a newly formed caucus called For Country that Mr. Waltz and I are, as you mentioned, the vice-co-chairs of. There are 20 of us in that caucus and we are roughly 10 Dems and Republicans and we all share in common that we served in the military at one point in our lives and we've come together in this caucus, which is a unique one because we don't have any ideological agenda, and that's unusual in a caucus. Most caucuses are about something specific, like maybe the environment. This one is actually about finding common ground and we're just trying to find something that can unify the nation and something that definitely can unify the nation is this concept of national service and we all have experienced that ourselves. We've all benefited from the service that we have been able to do in service of our country and we want to see other people be able to benefit from that, too. And again, not just the people who are the kids in the classroom as an example, but the actual service members themselves have benefited, and so I think that's what you see bipartisanly embraced and understood is we are a nation right now that is incredibly divided. We're in our little information silos, mostly virtual, and we need to be unified. We need to be, in some cases, asked to come together in the real world to be able to understand and empathize with one another, and national service does that.
I'll end with an analogy from the chemistry classroom, which is: reactions only happen when molecules collide, right? If we sit in our little petri dishes or our little beakers and we never are poured together, we never have the chance to see that all of us really have more in common than we do different and I think that's something that at least my experience in the military provided for me and certainly mine in the classroom did and that's something that I hope that we can share with one another in a national service program.
KH: That image that Chrissy left us with - one of molecules being poured together to react - Yasmeen Shaheen-McConnell had that experience in her year with the Arab American Resource Corps. Her passion for service, though, started even earlier.
Yasmeen Shaheen-McConnell: I grew up in a family that was quite engaged in our local community. So my call to service was not necessarily a bolt of lightning. I think it rarely is for a lot of people who have served. But it was a practice that I had growing up. I will say though, that I ended up in service because the post 9/11 generation that I'm a part of looked, I think, at our futures and said, "What is our role here? What is our responsibility here?" And when I was in college, we were having these discussions quite often, actually. So my call to service looked a lot like, "What is my role to play? What is my part to play here?" And then I ended up getting engaged with an organization called the Arab American Institute Foundation. I myself am an Arab American and they were one of the host sites for an AmeriCorps program, something called the Arab American Resource Corps. And that corps was made up of young Arab and Muslim Americans across the country who served in a diversity of positions. So when I did my service year, I worked alongside a group of young Arab and Muslim Americans from across the country. And I myself served educating people on Arab American issues and the Arab American community. And I know it sounds a little silly to say that now, but this was 2008. We were still living in a very different post 9/11 environment. And people had a lot of questions about who Arab Americans were. So I was able to provide a really educational role there along with ensuring that young Arab Americans got access to scholarships and awards and stuff like that while they were in school. It's interesting. The people who were serving in my corps, served in all different roles, arts camps for young people, social services for the people of Detroit essentially, all different types of roles. And I am a third-generation Arab American who grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, but I served alongside people whose families came from Egypt or Syria or Sudan. People who in the midst of the wars were coming from Yemen and coming from Iraq to the United States who were naturalized citizens and felt a real responsibility to serve this new country that they had taken the naturalization oaths and they had become citizens of the United States. And it was actually that realization that these people were new. I was born in America by luck at this point. These people had backgrounds like mine and names like mine, and they opted to come here. They opted to become citizens and they also opted to serve their country. And that's one of the things that changed me the most during my service year, actually. Anyone who serves will probably tell you, there's like a handful of really good days and a handful of really bad days. And there's a real grind for most of the days of your service. But that grind is done in partnership with people, in community with people, even if they're not physically next to you, you know you're serving in common purpose with them. And so I left my service year really believing that that sense of purpose that I had developed as an AmeriCorps member and the diversity of people I served alongside and their life experiences, as well as my friends and family who served in the military, we were all doing this together.
KH: Part of the benefit of national service is that sense of common purpose Yasmeen talked about, one you can only get by serving alongside fellow Americans. That’s something Pete Buttigieg talked about too in his advocacy for expanded national service opportunities.
But first, let’s learn about New Politics, the sponsor of this podcast. Stay with us as founder and Executive Director Emily Cherniack tells us about the work New Politics does to lift up servant leaders into elected office.
Emily Cherniak: New Politics, which is an organization that I founded and now run, we are a nonpartisan organization that aims to revitalize American democracy by recruiting, developing and electing servant leaders who put community and country first.
We help these outstanding leaders who have served in the military, or national service programs like AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps, run for office because we believe leaders who have dedicated their lives to serving our country are the kinds of proven leaders we need in politics. We think that leadership should transcend "party". So we'll talk to and consider supporting anyone who has served and embodies those servant leadership values.
I would say to anyone who feels disillusioned and hopeless about our politics to not lose hope, because there are a wave of leaders coming up through the pipeline who have what it takes to change our politics. These are amazing servant leaders from across the country who are stepping up and answering the call to serve again, and as candidates and campaign staffers and volunteers. Leaders like James Talarico who is a Teach For America alum, and in Texas was the youngest state rep to be elected and he has already done some big wins with bipartisan efforts on education reform. Or you look at David Crowley who is a Public Allies alum and Milwaukee state rep who, after scoring big wins for his community, is already positioned to even make more meaningful change as the first African American elected to the County Executive in the history of Milwaukee. They embody what it means to put the country first and they are sort of the hope and the inspiration that I feel when I think about the future of our politics for America.
KH: If you’re thinking about getting involved in politics, visit newpolitics.org to learn more about taking the next step in your service career.
The very first policy proposal of Pete’s campaign called for a dramatic expansion of national service. And I wanted to find out why. Why is that so important to him and to his vision of a better America?
Pete Buttigieg: There's so much work to be done around climate, around health...But it's not just about the work that's getting done, it's about the experience of doing it. That's where I think the power of service connects with the need for us to build more social trust. I think about the experience in uniform of coming to trust other people. The more I thought about it, the more I realized, the really remarkable thing is not the bonds of trust that I formed over time with people I served with, but the trust you place in somebody that you just met often when you're in that environment. I don't think that's just about things that are unique to the military experience, things like exposure to danger. I think it's also just part of the trust that comes from being part of a project together, a difficult project that's happening under pressure, that calls on people who might have nothing in common with each other, besides the fact of being American. This is something that I think creating dramatically more opportunities for voluntary civilian national service- matter of fact, I believe we ought to fund it so that every single American could do it, and it becomes a very natural part of coming of age in America. I think that has enormous potential for our social fabric at a moment when it seems like we're struggling to even trust that we belong to the same reality sometimes, in addition to the work that can be done. The good news is, since I think the case for this has only gotten stronger since my presidential campaign ended, is that it turns out you can do a lot of this without tons of elaborate new legislation. Just fully funding or further funding things we already have, using the machinery we already have around things like AmeriCorps and the state commissions on service that exists in every state today. Congress could do it overnight, could just appropriate more funds and flow them through that plumbing that we've already got and create dramatically more opportunities to serve at a moment when America really needs it.
KH: You would focus on young people when you use phrasing like rite of passage or coming of age. I'm imagining a generational mission that young people begin to demand of each other a year of service before they embark on the rest of their lives. Is that the idea?
PB: I think so. I mean, there's also something very compelling about creating opportunities for every generation. I think that, especially with what's changed in terms of health and life expectancy, there are more ways for seniors to contribute and have a lot to offer. Again, right now, there are some wonderful existing programs that help to do that that we could better be funding. But I do think that, in terms of making this universal, we can get it to be the kind of norm where, no matter where you're headed in life as a young person, if you're going to college or if you're entering the workforce, either way, the first question you get when you apply would be, what was it like when you served? Where were you? What'd you learn? Who were you with? It becomes a touchstone that any two Americans who came of age after this became more or less universal could strike up a conversation over.
KH: What was the reaction on the campaign trail from young people in particular to this idea? I know that AmeriCorps gets more applications per available position than even a place like Harvard, so clearly, the hunger is there, but what did you see firsthand?
PB: One of the things I would do a lot of times, if I was giving a stump speech or doing a town hall, is I'd just asked for a show of hands, especially with a lot of young people. I'd say, "How many of you would be willing to work on an initiative to build the climate resiliency of your community? How many of you would be willing to be a part of a community health corps that helps people facing issues with mental health or addiction?" So many hands would go up, and you're right, as you point out, these statistics tell us that so many hands up are going up already. If you look at the acceptance rates of AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps or the military, they tell us that for everybody who does get a chance to serve, there are several others who tried, who would be willing to. We know that the appetite is there. We ought to be putting the funding there, and that was before I had a chance as I would today to ask a room full of people, how many of you would volunteer to be part of a contact tracing effort to help us get on top of this pandemic? Many estimates suggest we're going to need at least 100,000 people just to help with contact tracing if we really want to be fully on top of this pandemic as we move toward reopening, which somehow we've got to find a way to safely do.
KH: That was Pete Buttigieg - teasing our next episode, where we’ll talk about the potential of national service to address health crises, like the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ll talk with Dr. Abdul El-Sayed - a physician, public health expert, and host of the Crooked Media podcast America Dissected - about the pandemic, the state of public health in our country, and how national service can help. We’ll also learn about a program in North Carolina using a national service model to improve the health of medically underserved communities, while also providing pre-med fellows with hands-on primary care experience.
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Rebuilding America is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, made in partnership with New Politics. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Associate producer is Leon Pescador. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Rebuilding America, a podcast about national service.