In 2004 I helped start a new coalition to lobby for federal funding for service-learning funding, which helps faculty and students connect their coursework to meaningful community work. I just found out that the budget deal struck last week and voted on yesterday eliminates Learn and Serve America (AmeriCorps funding was also cut, but not eliminated). Congratulations members of Congress, you just shaved a whopping $40 million off our budget, and made it dramatically more difficult for schools and colleges to support programs that build civic engagement and support social justice.
As I read about these cuts I was reminded about the last major Congressional attack on AmeriCorps funding, almost ten years ago. At the time, a small group of organizers put together 100 consecutive hours of testimony on Capitol Hill where lawmakers and press could hear the voices of people whose lives and communities had been impacted by national service programs like Learn and Serve and AmeriCorps.
I was there at 8pm on day one, here is what I said:
Josh Stearns, (representing The Student Conservation Association/Campus Compact):
Thanks so much for all of you who are sticking around for this, the eighth hour now. A little bit earlier, when I arrived, somebody had been walking around, one of the organizers I believe, and said quietly, I think we could do 200 hours. What do you think? And it looks to me like we could, and I think that a lot of thanks goes out to the organizers of this incredible event, for bringing the entire service movement together. These organizers have all been dreamers who are constantly getting things done, and have put in an amazing amount of work, so my thanks goes to them. In addition to speaking as an SCA and an AmeriCorps alumni, I’m also here representing Campus Compact, a coalition of over 900 college and university presidents committed to the civic mission of higher education.
I planned to talk tonight about my experiences with the New York Adirondack AmeriCorps SCA program, but you’ve heard a brilliant articulation of that from Wayne, and I have to tell him how thankful I am to hear that quote that was on Rebecca Pike’s board, because that was a quote that she read at our graduation, and it was a joy to hear that again. In addition, another thing that derailed my plans was getting an e-mail this morning. It was an e-mail from somebody, I don’t know who she is or how she got my e-mail address, but in this electronic world where e-mails are passed on and on and on, I can only imagine that it was through one of my correspondence. And her name is Lynn Nawinsky (SP?), and I just wanted to share this e-mail with you. She says, “You will all be in my thoughts and prayers this week, and my daughter Jamie will be there in the audience. Please let me know what citizens can do on a local level for AmeriCorps.”
I’ve been collecting stories of AmeriCorps impact for the past few months, but somehow this e-mail really struck me in a way others had not. It seemed such a clear and simple passionate articulation of not only what AmeriCorps has done for America, but also, what it has meant for Americans, for local students, families, and communities. AmeriCorps isn’t just strengthening communities now, it is assuring stronger communities in the future. One thing we constantly hear at Campus Compact from the community organizations that our campuses work for and work with is a genuine concern for who their successors will be. AmeriCorps serves this training ground, teaching young people the skills and values that will help them be community leaders, both in the public and private sector. To be an active participant in the democracy takes training, and AmeriCorps provides that training. More than 190 college and university presidents signed a letter to George W. Bush this summer stating just that. When I graduated from college, I knew I wanted to serve. I knew I wanted to serve the communities of upstate New York, but I didn’t know how. With the loans that I had collected in college, I could not have served for a year without that ed award being offered through SCA and AmeriCorps. In my time with SCA, I worked in partnerships with other nonprofits, businesses, schools, and government agencies, and it was that SCA program which gave me the skills to begin to work at a national service organization, and now at age 25, I am looking excitedly ahead to a lifetime of public work.
I so appreciated the thoughts and prayers of Ms. Lynn Nawinsky this morning that I want to end today by sending my own thoughts and prayers to the children of Tupper Lake Elementary School, where I served in the third grade class at an SCA program I recently learned will be cut, at least for the year, due to these AmeriCorps funding issues. I want to especially mention Dylan, a third grader, who told me that he couldn’t wait until he was old enough to be an AmeriCorps volunteer. It is for him, and every student like him, who wishes to serve, that I stand here today asking Congress to make sure that they have the opportunity to do so.