Episode 10: The Future of Service
What could national service be at its best? If we invest and shift our culture to value service more highly, what could we accomplish and how could we grow as a country? On the last regular episode of Rebuilding America, Ken talks with Barbara Stewart, CEO of AmeriCorps, and Eric Garcetti, the Mayor of Los Angeles - asking them to look forward and think big.
The alumni testimonial features Josh Fryday, Chief Service Officer for the state of California.
Ken Harbaugh: Do you want to get paid, gain skills, and make a difference in your community? A service year may be just what you’re looking for. Apply today at ServiceYear.org/podcast.
Welcome to Rebuilding America, produced in partnership with New Politics. We’ve been talking about national service in this series: what is it, why do we need it, and can it rebuild America?
We explored the Peace Corps, Report for America, Teach for America, and the US military... We’ve talked to leaders like General Stanley McChrystal, Francis Fukuyama, Fagan Harris, Tammy Duckworth and Don Bacon. We’ve gone from Baltimore to Oregon, from San Antonio to the Dominican Republic.
We’ve heard so many stories of national service connecting Americans in common purpose, of the change that is possible when people commit to serving one another and serving alongside one another.
Today, on our very last regular episode of Rebuilding America, we’re looking to the future. What could national service be at its best? If we invest and shift our culture to value service more highly, what could we accomplish and how could we grow as a country? I’m talking with Barbara Stewart, CEO of AmeriCorps, and Eric Garcetti, the Mayor of Los Angeles - asking them to look forward and think big.
Our alum testimonial this week is from Josh Fryday, the Chief Service Officer for the state of California.
First, we’ll hear from Barbara Stewart, CEO of AmeriCorps, the federal agency dedicated to service. AmeriCorps used to be known as the Corporation for National and Community Service, an umbrella agency that included AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, and other programs. That often led to confusion, since AmeriCorps is by far the most well-known. So, they recently rebranded:
Barbara Stewart: As I would explain to people that I was the CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, I almost always then went to, "That's AmeriCorps." And then people would understand what I was talking about. So, there was a lot of subjectivity, but also objectivity to making the decision to move forward with a new brand name for the agency. We did some significant research in the last couple of years and learned, not surprisingly, that very few Americans knew about the Corporation for National and Community Service, but many knew about AmeriCorps. And when you hear the media or opinion leaders talking about national service, they frequently interchange that word with AmeriCorps. And so, AmeriCorps has good brand equity. We're trying to improve that brand equity so that every American knows about their opportunity to serve through a national service program. So we need to, as an organization, put our resources behind talking about one product: AmeriCorps and AmeriCorps Seniors, our opportunities for those 55 and older. And talking about AmeriCorps rather than the myriad of specific programs that we run. Because people are really interested in their opportunity to serve and once they determine they want to do that, then they'll look into the specifics of the various programs.
KH: I've long had this image in my mind of a Super Bowl halftime show in which you have the obligatory fly over from the Blue Angels or the Thunderbirds, if it's an off year - that's the Navy pilot in me talking - the salute to the troops with an airman and a Marine and a soldier and a sailor. But alongside them, you have an AmeriCorps member recently returned from the front lines of the fight against COVID-19 or the fight against climate change or something like that. Do you think that is achievable? An America in which we have been able to elevate that kind of national service to the same level with the same recognition and awareness as military service.
BS: So, it's the right goal to have, and I love your visual. I think it's inspiring and really fun. One of our challenges is to ensure that people who are participating in our programs actually know that they are AmeriCorps members. And that may seem like a confusing comment to say, but almost all of our programming is done through partnerships and our partners are beloved and well known. So, amongst the partnerships that are most familiar to your audience, we partner with Habitat for Humanity and City Year and Teach for America and Catholic charities and the American Red Cross. And these programs are well-known. AmeriCorps is a major funder and a major participant in terms of helping find people power for these organizations. But often participants think of themselves as a corps member with TFA, or they think of themselves working at the Red Cross. And we need to make sure that they also recognize that they are doing national service through AmeriCorps, that they're enjoying the benefits of our AmeriCorps program, which include the Segal Education Award upon completion of their service. So, one of the challenges for us and one of the reasons that we pursued branding all of our programs as AmeriCorps is to ensure that Americans who are participating in the program recognize that they are in fact AmeriCorps members. Members of the military know that they're part of the Army or Navy or Coast Guard, but they all also know they're part of the military service. We need every member of national service to recognize and reinforce their participation as members of AmeriCorps.
KH: And how do you do that? The military has the advantage of a kind of similar basic training across the services. It has the advantage of people wearing uniforms, even though they differ slightly between the services. Are there symbols you can adopt, are there things you can do within AmeriCorps to achieve that same sense of shared identity?
BS: So, there's a number of things. We actually often do wear uniforms, AmeriCorps members wear uniforms. We have a AmeriCorps logo, actually a new logo this year that is a modern build on the former A that more than a million Americans have worn so proudly. But it's a new twist on the original logo. And the AmeriCorps logo coupled with an experience that has similarity across the country of serving in communities. One of the strengths of AmeriCorps is that we work with such a myriad partners who are doing all kinds of things that are of essential value in their community. So for example, AmeriCorps members are working in schools tutoring and mentoring. They're in the field helping after a natural disaster. They're working in conservation environments, helping to build trails or to clean rivers. They're assisting seniors and ensuring that they can stay safely in their homes. So, the number of opportunities that AmeriCorps represents is one of our great strengths, but it goes back to the challenge of ensuring that everyone throughout the country, the 75,000 AmeriCorps members who are serving this country this year, have some similar experience so that they feel as though they're part of a bigger organization. And that's AmeriCorps.
KH: Has there been consideration given to an actual training program? Albeit a short one, nothing like what the military requires of its recruits, but something short and intense, if you will, but mostly geared towards creating that sense of camaraderie among AmeriCorps members from very disparate backgrounds going off to do very different kinds of service.
BS: So, we've had conversations about that and some of our largest partners do a great job at that. And some of our small partners as well. I'm not saying our partners aren't terrific at trying to encourage their AmeriCorps members to recognize that they're part of this big national service movement. But it's interesting, our AmeriCorps Vista program does have specific training and our AmeriCorps NCCC, which is our residential team-based program, has very specific training and our experience and our research shows that individuals who participate in those programs may have a somewhat stronger tie to their AmeriCorps experience than individuals serving in other programs. But I want to flip this around because I think I've overemphasized the challenge. AmeriCorps members do know that they're part of something bigger. They do know that they're part of AmeriCorps. We need our alumni and those participating in our programs this year to be talking more about their service and how it's affected them so that more Americans are aware of their opportunity to serve. We were talking earlier about the challenge of getting Americans of all generations to know about AmeriCorps and the opportunity to serve. And until we are strengthening our communications around the benefits to community and to the individual and the experience of AmeriCorps, we'll still have market share out there who's not aware of their opportunity and we need to be closing that gap.
KH: Well, I would imagine there is a supply/demand dilemma here. Because as you raise awareness, you increase demand. And yet you mentioned earlier, there are 75,000 slots per year, which when you consider the scale of the demand right now, much less the scale of the need looking at what's going to be required as we emerge from this pandemic, what's going to be required within an aging population and the learning losses we're experiencing, all the things we've talked about on this show, 75,000 just isn't enough. How do you balance all the great work you're doing expanding awareness with the reality right now that you're just having to say no to way too many young people who desperately want to serve their country?
BS: Well, there's the potential for a virtuous cycle here. As you were just saying, the pandemic has certainly driven demand, both for AmeriCorps members to serve in communities and for Americans to want to participate in AmeriCorps. We have more applicants this year for our programs than we've had in a number of years, which is also terrific. But you hate to say no, right? We want to create an opportunity for every American to serve who is so inclined. It's in part a resource issue. But as our AmeriCorps members are making such a difference in communities, I think that strengthens the interest of our funders to continue expanding opportunities. There's been a great deal of discussion this year about expanding service opportunities and I think it's all based in the recognition that national service is one of the great solutions to the challenges that the pandemic has confronted us with. So, for example, Senators Chris Coons and Roger Wicker, a bi-partisan pair, have introduced legislation that would increase the number of service opportunities here in the country and they have a number of bipartisan colleagues who are supporting their efforts. In the House there have also been efforts to increase funding for AmeriCorps programs and I think that's a reflection of the understanding that national service is one of the solutions and that getting more Americans engaged in service in their community is one way for us to address the challenges created by both the health and economic implications of the pandemic.
KH: We've had a few of the leaders of those efforts on the show, like Senator Duckworth and Don Bacon and Chrissy Houlahan, as well as some of the moral forces behind this movement, like Stan McChrystal and Leon Panetta. And what I keep hearing again and again is that it's not just about the problems that national service is attempting to solve, and they are certainly massive and myriad, COVID-19 being at the top of the list, but it's also about the need to begin to repair some of the rifts that have opened up in our society, which I think is why I was harping on this idea of shared purpose and shared identity. How do you think about that balance, the balance between AmeriCorps doing real work in communities and AmeriCorps also serving as a way to repair divisions across society?
BS: Great question, and I don't think we have to choose one or the other. I think we get both with an AmeriCorps program. We've been talking about the impact that AmeriCorps members have in their community to solve problems, to address issues. But the ability to bring people from different backgrounds together, for them to have the kind of experience that's been referenced that so many have had in the military, to work with people from different backgrounds and therefore gain understanding about them and truly heal some of the divisions in our country, is arguably one of the great secret sauces of AmeriCorps. It's something that appeals to a broad range of supporters. And when individuals learn about AmeriCorps, frequently it is the thing that they are most attracted to. And that is the ability for these programs to bridge divides. I had the pleasure of going to Florida after Hurricane Michael, and this was a couple of years ago, and observed a team of AmeriCorps members who had come from all over the country, who were from very different backgrounds, and to watch them working together to help a family that they had never met before and might likely never see again was so inspiring. And it was clear that these young people working together had gotten to know one another and, having gone through this tremendous experience together, will come away with a greater appreciation for Americans from a different part of the country, Americans with perhaps different political backgrounds, and we need that healing. We need that in this country.
KH: I want to add one other element to that intercultural exchange. One of the most amazing things that AmeriCorps does that isn't celebrated enough is the intergenerational exchange. It certainly brings people together from all different geographies and as you said, people from different political backgrounds, but with AmeriCorps Seniors, it brings people together from entirely different generations and we've just begun to touch on that in this show.
BS: Absolutely. Our AmeriCorps Seniors program is 200,000 strong and AmeriCorps also, the traditional programs we think about, include a number of individuals 30 and over, and in some cases, 55 and over. I had the opportunity to visit a program in Delaware last year, before the pandemic, that was a tutoring program and I was intrigued to notice that about 20% of the participants were retired. And so when you think about intergenerational opportunities, it's an intergenerational opportunity to serve together. It's also the opportunity for different generations to serve one another. So for example, our AmeriCorps Senior programs include opportunities for seniors to be working in the classroom with kids. But we also have programs where seniors are helping older seniors stay in their home. So, it's intergenerational in so many different ways, both as compatriots serving together and different generations serving one another.
KH: One of the stories I just love hearing again and again, and it's an archetype, but it's the AmeriCorps member who is just looking for something to do between say, high school and whatever's next, college. And they get an AmeriCorps position and it transforms their outlook and their service gene is just turned on. Do you have a favorite story or two of AmeriCorps members who came into the program maybe without the idealism that the AmeriCorps oath suggests, but who had that service gene turned on and has recommitted their lives?
BS: There are so many stories that it's hard to pull out one. To hear the personal stories of individuals who've served in our residential team building program, NCCC, is one of my favorite experiences every year. To hear folks talk about how in some cases they signed up for AmeriCorps because their mom told them to, or they signed up for AmeriCorps because some other opportunity fell through. And at the end, they're signing up for another year. They want to be a team leader. There are many, many alumni who have participated in AmeriCorps not once, but twice, who’ve continued to answer the call of service. And we have really interesting statistics that show that individuals who serve in AmeriCorps are far more likely to stay engaged in civic and charitable work throughout their career. And now that our programs are decades old, we have really good research about how engaged our alumni are in the community. But another interesting example, I think, is the pivot that we've seen young people and older people make, our AmeriCorps and AmeriCorps Seniors, this year. So for example, AmeriCorps Seniors who had been helping other seniors by visiting them and driving them to their chores can't do that now in many parts of the country and so they've changed their service to be much more virtual. We see with our mentoring and tutoring programs a pivot to virtual. I had the opportunity to see some AmeriCorps members in Chicago who had signed up to be mentors and tutors in a charter school. And when COVID hit, the needs of their community changed and they ended up spending the last several months of their service managing a food bank and delivering food and PPE to individuals in their neighborhood. I bring that up because that's just an example of how AmeriCorps members expect that their experience will be one way - frequently it is - but their ability to rise to the occasion, to do what is needed to provide the service that their communities need at the time, is one of the great hallmarks of the program. And we've seen so much of that this year.
KH: You spoke about the research that is now beginning to prove the case of AmeriCorps. How important is that ROI argument in convincing people that AmeriCorps is worth the investment?
BS: So, one of the opportunities and challenges is that different people are moved by different types of ROI. And so we were talking earlier about the value of these programs in bringing communities together, bringing people from all over the country together and bridging divides. For some people that's the most important ROI. Another important ROI is the ability for AmeriCorps members to motivate other volunteers in their community and to organize volunteers. Another ROI is looking at the work that AmeriCorps Seniors and AmeriCorps members are doing in their community and the impact that they're having. And in some cases, the savings that result from the work that they're doing. There's lots of different ways to look at ROI, which is again, complicating matters. But it also allows us to go to different audiences with different interests and explain the benefit. And then the ROI in terms of the investment in the individual who's serving. So for example, with our AmeriCorps Seniors, we know that service keeps people healthier, more engaged, literally allows them to live longer. And we certainly know with our younger AmeriCorps members, the leadership development that occurs, the specific skills that they learn going through an AmeriCorps program, and the educational opportunities that AmeriCorps service opens up to them because of earning the education award. So, there's the investment in the community, there's the investment in the individual, and there's really the investment in strengthening the fabric of our country. Lots of different ways to look at a return on investment.
KH: I'm so glad to hear that you have an approach to ROI that segments it in that way. Because one of my concerns is that if we focus too much on the financial return, if we look too hard at how many dollars return to a community that invests $1 in AmeriCorps, we will forget the most important aspects of AmeriCorps, which really can't be measured in terms of dollars and cents and it is what you spoke to, the ability to bring Americans together in shared purpose. When you talk to AmeriCorps members in the field, on the front lines, is there a consensus about the most important, impactful feature of their service?
BS: Ken, it really varies but it's also an interesting continuum. I think when an AmeriCorps member is in service, their greatest focus is on what they're doing to make a difference in the community they serve. But as time goes on, the recognition of the skills they've developed, both hard practical skills and leadership skills, that will last them a lifetime become more apparent. And I think it's actually probably after service that most AmeriCorps members recognize the exposure they've had to others who are different than themselves. So, it's an evolution. Some people probably experience it all on day one, but I think over time, the various benefits sink in more.
KH: Where do you see AmeriCorps in five years, in 10 years? Loaded question, of course, because I would love to hear an answer that anticipates service becoming a core American value, a rite of passage for young people, an expectation of all Americans. Can we get there?
BS: I'm confident that we can for many reasons. One, AmeriCorps has fantastic bipartisan support and that bipartisan support has been earned over the years because of the great work that our AmeriCorps Seniors and AmeriCorps members are doing. Our goal is to ensure that every American knows about their opportunity to serve so that service becomes a cornerstone of the American experience. Service brings out the best in Americans, and it really brings out the best in individuals who serve in these programs. And so as our army of alumni continues to grow and the number of people who have had exposure and experience to AmeriCorps continues to grow, I am confident that the broad understanding of the value of these programs and the investment that's required at both the federal and local level for these programs will continue to grow.
KH: That was Barbara Stewart, CEO of AmeriCorps.
After the break, we’ll hear an alum testimonial from Josh Fryday, the Chief Service Officer in the state of California. We’ll also hear from fellow Californian Eric Garcetti, the Mayor of Los Angeles.
But first, let’s learn about New Politics, the sponsor of Rebuilding America. Listen to founder and Executive Director Emily Cherniack tell us about the work New Politics does to lift up servant leaders into elected office.
Emily Cherniack: 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.
Like many of the alums we’ve featured in this series, Josh Fryday has made a career of service. A former Navy officer, Josh served his community as a city council member and mayor of Novato, California, before Governor Newsom appointed him California’s Chief Service Officer.
Josh Fryday: What first drew me to service I think was always wanting to make a meaningful impact in the world and seeing even as a young kid, gross disparities between people in this country, our country and other countries, and wanting to actually be able to do something about it, wanting to actually be able to make change. And I had always sort of idolized and found those who had used their lives to make change as being my heroes. So civil rights leaders and others, even as a kid, I wanted to be like them because I felt like they used their time on earth to create real change. I sort of found that through service. Gandhi has a great quote, which is, "The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others." And if I think about sort of the most meaningful times in my life, whether it's when I was 17 years old as a volunteer with the Amigos de Las Americas program, where I got to volunteer in the Dominican Republic and work in a community with no running water, no electricity, or when I had a chance to serve our country as a officer in the United States Navy, I was part of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Operation Tomodachi, the relief effort after the tsunami and the nuclear disaster, and then also had a chance to work on the Military Commissions in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and then the opportunity to serve locally when I came back from the Navy on the city council and ultimately as mayor of my hometown in Novato, California, and then now with this job as Chief Service Officer for the state of California, I think I’ve been able to find myself in the service of others.
I think the throughlines of my career, whether it was being abroad or serving in the Navy or serving locally in local government, are that good things only happen when we are all willing to stand up and work together. The only way we get change in our society is when people are willing to step up and work through really hard problems together and fight through it to come out on the other side in a positive way. And I just have seen that when things don't change, too often it's because people aren't willing to serve each other to give back. But throughout my career and throughout my life, I've seen people willing to step up and come together is actually when you get real change and when you can make positive things happen.
When I think about the future of national service and the power of national service, I think we have to recognize that national service is how we solve our biggest challenges, it's how we solve our biggest problems. It always has been that way and it always will be. And we have to recognize that right now, one of our biggest challenges in our country is the social division that we're all experiencing. The fact that we are a divided country, that our social fabric has been frayed. People don't trust each other, and in a democracy that relies on its deliberation and self-government and compromise and trust, that is a very dangerous thing. And so for us to be able to rebuild that trust, to rebuild that social fabric and to strengthen communities so that people want to work together to solve real problems, we have to focus on having people serve each other again. And national service is how we get there and we need to make sure that national service is available for everyone.
We really have to create the expectation of service, and that starts with our leaders. And it starts with our political leaders certainly. I think we all understand that, the importance of political leaders calling on people to serve. We're very fortunate in California that Governor Newsom has used his bully pulpit to call on Californians to step up and help each other and to volunteer and to serve. But it goes well beyond that. We need business leaders, we need university leaders, we need all civic leaders, faith leaders calling on us as Americans in this time to serve and to help each other. And I'm constantly reminded of Martin Luther King's quote that “everybody can be great because anybody can serve”. And we're in a moment in American history right now where we need Americans to be great and anybody can be great. Anybody can serve. And in the national service movement, we have to make it so that everyone can be great.
KH: Like Josh said, we need leaders in all aspects of American society to create an expectation of service. One leader striving to set that example in his community is Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles:
Eric Garcetti: Service to me is the core, not only of the life I've chosen, but just how I was raised and who I am. And I've seen service in my fellow human beings, whether they're neighbors here in Los Angeles, across the country, and in the Navy, or whether it's been internationally when I've lived abroad, as really the- two things: it's the cement that binds a nation, meaning the group of people, not the state, the government, but the nation together. But it also is the one place that I think people come together across differences to find common ground. So we need both the unifying force of service because it helps people who would never work on a common project together actually have that experience. And then second, I think that the effect of that is really building a nation of one people with all of our diversity, but a place where all of us belong.
KH: You referred to service as the cement that binds a nation. Do you make a distinction between volunteerism, or service that originates at the local level and is focused at the local level, do you make a distinction between that and national service?
EG: Well, at a certain level, they're the same because it draws from the same well inside of us, but there is something about national service, in the way that you and I know, a commitment, you as an active duty member of the United States Navy, I as somebody who spent 12 years in the Reserve component, the regularity of that, whether it's a full-time or even a part-time commitment, there's something I think that deepens that, so that it isn't just a good thing to do a value, a responsibility that comes from our faith or our patriotism. It is a defining moment, I think, of people's lives when they go through national service. I lived in Africa, in Eritrea a couple of years after that nation became an independent country, and I studied a nation that had eight major languages, half of the population Christian, half of it Muslim, every reason to not be unified in a common purpose, and yet this country, with no help from either the Soviet Union or the United States at the time, defeated Africa's largest army, Ethiopia, in a war of independence. And to me, one of the things that kept the nation together was that they had this national service that they had done. First, it had been military, but for those who don't want to serve in the military, there's a million ways to do this. But it was the first time a Muslim Eritrean had been side by side with a Christian Eritrean. They would tell me about what it meant to find people from a different geography, or speaking a different language. And so, I do believe that something about national service really helps you understand who the nation is. This is the area that I've studied kind of academically too. Most nations were formed before they became states. Think Italy or Germany, where there was roughly a group of Germans, roughly a group of Italians who eventually wanted to form a state. The United States is different, we were a state before we were a nation. In other words, we were this bounded country, and those boundaries changed over time, but before we knew who the people were, something we're still struggling with today in calls for racial justice and looking at our original sins against Native Americans and African Americans. So I think that national service really does get to a deeper place of giving you a sense of your identity, who you are, and that commitment is greater than a weekend of volunteering.
KH: I do want to discuss politics with you because as the mayor of L.A., I mean, you have a budget that rivals many nations, you face challenges on the same level as many countries face, and I think people often don't appreciate that. Let me just take one small example related to national service and that is just how diverse of a city Los Angeles is. I mean, you compare two kids from 20 miles apart, one growing up in, say, Santa Monica, and one growing up in East L.A., their outlooks on life and their life experiences are as different as two kids from New York and San Francisco. And I'm wondering, as a mayor, how you accommodate that, or better yet, how you leverage that diversity to strengthen your city?
EG: So, it's funny, this is an area that I've thought of my whole life. It's a little bit of what I studied when I studied nationalism and ethnicity. I myself am kind of a hybrid, that is to say, typical American. I have an Italian last name, but I'm half Mexican. On my father's side of the family, both parents were from Mexico. On my mother's side were Jews who fled the pogroms of the Russian empire in the early 20th century. So, to me, I've always loved the way that America, at our best, makes this work. And I've kind of moved even further on beyond just the idea of diversity, which is powerful, and inclusion, which is a little bit more powerful even than diversity, to what I think is the deepest word, which is belonging, because inclusion means I'm including you, diversity could describe the spread at a buffet, I mean, but belonging gets to an emotional sense of ownership of who we are, of the place where we live and what we call home, this America. And so, I think there's too many Americans, whether it's an African-American woman who feels that maybe America has never fully said "you belong," to folks who are experiencing economic dislocation, who haven't experienced that maybe in racial terms, white men who were coal miners in Appalachia or something, who also are saying "do I still belong?", and I think we have to find a sense of belonging.
Now, how do we get there? L.A. has some really interesting experiences. I mean, in 1992, when Rodney King - the verdict came down that found the officers not guilty and uprising or riots broke out here in Los Angeles, when that was all done and 60 something people dead and billions of dollars of damage, there was a lot of talk of like, "Wow, Koreans don't really know who African Americans are, and African Americans need to talk to Latinos and whites," and I always found that to be very superficial. I was young when that happened, but those conversations, the "can't we all just get along?" only take you so far. What you need is common work together, side by side. I mean, that's what you and I experienced in the military. That's what national service can do is - what I found in Los Angeles, when I became a council member, it was only less than a decade after that unrest, it was going onto a block where yes, maybe somebody was a Guatemalan immigrant, and a Thai immigrant, and somebody else was a fourth generation African American, descendant of Jamaican immigrants, and other people had been here even longer. It wasn't having a dinner party and talking about our diversity that helped people understand each other, it was, "hey, we want to build a park in that empty lot down the street," or "We want to work together to make this a safer street and get rid of the gang and divert our kids to better activities." And then people learned their cultural difference as they were working on common projects and that's what I try to model. So whether it's at national service, something I've always been in favor of, or in Los Angeles, saying, "across these lines of cultural difference, what are our common desires? And now, let's get to work on them," that, to me, is what holds a city together and moves it forward into its next chapters.
KH: So belonging can't just be declared. It has to be arrived at, it has to be worked on. Since this is a podcast about national service, I would submit that participation is a vital element of that belonging. But I'm going to steal that from you, because I love that formulation of diversity plus inclusion to arrive at belonging, with the requisite participation.
EG: You're exactly right. It then has to be actually felt, and you don't feel that if you don't have the lived experience together across those lines, and service does that.
KH: We're at a moment now where national service as an animating idea is resurgent, not just among communities in cities, but finally on Capitol Hill, you have political leaders, representatives in Congress, big city mayors saying, "We need this. We need this, not just because our country needs to rebuild and rekindle that sense of common purpose, but by God, we need young people and everyone to lean in and help us overcome some of the crises we now face." What do you think is possible, if we get this right? If indeed, some of the legislation making its way through Congress is able to deliver on these promises to increase national service positions tenfold, which some of them do, how is a city like L.A. preparing for that?
EG: Well, think about it. This nation has always risen to the occasion in the face of our toughest challenges and national service has often been one of the ways we respond and emerge from these challenges. Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression, the Peace Corps during the Cold War. And so, I've been working on a coalition to strongly support the idea of a National Service Corps right now to deal with this pandemic and the economic recovery of our nation. So, closely working with Chris Coons on the Pandemic Response and Opportunity Through National Service Act, but leading up to that, I actually called it something more simple, just a CARES Corps. And David Holt, the Republican mayor of Oklahoma City, and I, the Democratic mayor of Los Angeles, wrote an op-ed piece calling on national leadership that would give local governments the resources to be able to put people to work, go into communities that are being overlooked in the midst of this pandemic and losing lives, and then help those small businesses that haven't gotten the assistance to really stand up recovery. If ever there were a time, it's now. We had unemployment higher than the Great Depression here in Los Angeles, early on in the pandemic. We've got still too many people that are looking at the next six to eight weeks and saying, "Maybe my business will never come back," and we've got a frayed nation that is being taught by its political leadership to look for the division and the difference between us, rather than to lead with love, and to find the commonality and the common purpose that we need right now. So it's a strange world to live in, I have to say, because as a local leader, I see these incredible acts of kindness, of community, and of commonality every single day, but then we see at the national level, the thunder and the lightning of the internal and external threats to our nation, and that's what we're told we're supposed to be scared of and we're supposed to act out of our fear rather than our hope. So I do believe that if we were able to get 300,000 national service positions working as public health workers, and I would increase that, as I said, to helping small businesses get started up, looking at racial justice to help more Black businesses and businesses owned by women, and veterans, and people of color. This is the moment to do it, to really reimagine America as a place where we all belong, where we all have an obligation to serve, but we also through that, can all be helped and uplifted.
KH: Thank you to Eric, Barbara, and Josh and to all of my guests in the past ten episodes for their insights and commitment to national service. And thank you listeners for joining me throughout this series, exploring how national service can help us rebuild America.
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And - although the regular series of Rebuilding America is now over, keep your eyes on this feed. We’ll have a special bonus episode airing soon.
Are you interested in doing national service? Visit ServiceYear.org/podcast to start searching for thousands of paid, full-time opportunities to spend a year transforming your life through national service. ServiceYear.org/podcast
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.