September 19, 2019

Raising the bar for AmeriCorps’ next 25 years

As the service organization celebrates it's 25th anniversary, Rebecca Lange, an AmeriCorps Alumna, looks forward to a bright future filled with service opportunities.

Members of AmeriCorps dedicate a year of their lives in service to local communities. Photo via AmeriCorps.

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the first AmeriCorps member being sworn into the then-nascent national service program. Conceptualized under the Points of Light Foundation during the first Bush Administration and brought to life with legislation signed by President Clinton, over one million Americans have served in our nation’s “domestic Peace Corps” and made a tremendous impact on our communities. As an AmeriCorps alum myself, I am proud to be part of this history and to have played a small role in AmeriCorps’ work responding to local, regional, and national needs. However, I can’t help but feel the potential of AmeriCorps programs – and service year opportunities writ large – remain an untapped commodity for our nation.

Fresh out of high school and on my own to pay for college, I served in the second AmeriCorps class, specifically in the National Civilian Community Corps modeled after the New Deal’s highly successful Civilian Conservation Corps. My team and I lived in Airmen dorms on the recently-closed Lowry Air Force Base and tutored Denver’s young adults, built ADA-compliant hiking trails, and homes with Habitat for Humanity. I worked alongside corps members who looked, loved, worshiped, and thought differently than me, and as a bright-eyed and impressionable young adult, few other experiences could have developed my emotional intelligence, empathy, and motivation to make a difference than my service year.

With my then-$4,725 education award, I drove up the highway and used it for my first tuition payment at the University of Colorado. While there, I signed up for Air Force ROTC and, even as a non-scholarship cadet working two other jobs and volunteering when I could, my gut told me the path of service would not steer me wrong.

When I give thanks for the incredible path I’ve been given, I give full and due credit to my roots in national service. But, my experience is not unique. It is shared by over one million Americans who have had an opportunity to spend a year in AmeriCorps, dedicating a year of their lives in service to our local communities and making a tremendous impact along the way.

Yet only one million people over a quarter of a century — we can do better than that!

Only 66,000 people serve with AmeriCorps every year. Meanwhile, one in four young Americans would raise their hand to do a service year tomorrow if given the opportunity. That’s one million people who would serve every year, while less than one hundredth of one percent actually can. And, according to the Pentagon, only three out of ten young Americans are even qualified to serve in the military. We’re leaving hundreds of thousands of service-oriented Americans without an outlet to serve. This has to change.

So while we celebrate the impact of AmeriCorps and share how our service years shaped us into the people we are today, I urge us to take a moment and think about the future of AmeriCorps over the next 25 years.

What will AmeriCorps look like in 2044? What issues will the next generation face that AmeriCorps members could address?

If every young person in America had the opportunity to serve, we would see hundreds of thousands of young people making up the crews that are improving our public parks, reducing the risk of wildfires, and on the front lines of disaster response. We would see a future in which every school that needs them has AmeriCorps members to tutor and mentor students, run their after school programs, and prepare graduates for college and career success. I dream of a day where we can ask one another, “where did you serve?” and hear answers ranging from Iraq and Afghanistan…to a Native American reservation in South Dakota. Not everyone can join the military and not everyone is interested in joining the military, but I firmly believe every American is wired to serve our nation in their own unique capacity, especially if given the chance to focus on issues which are meaningful to them.

On a personal level, service years create pipelines to continue education via technical training or colleges and universities, and give young Americans stepping stones for careers. On a local, state, and even a national level, service years build an army of citizens with a reflex to identify problems, organize teams, and move out on solutions. Very similar to military service, national service builds attachment to community and country, understanding among people who might otherwise be skeptical of one another, and creates a new generation of leaders who can get things done.

There’s no doubt about it — the first 25 years of AmeriCorps and everything its members have done for our nation gives great cause for celebration. But let’s set the bar higher for AmeriCorps in 2044. With the world’s most advanced military taking care of business on the front lines of freedom, what better complement than to have a community of service year corps members and alums on the front lines of domestic issues? It’s up to all of us to come together and demand that national service be a national priority.

A Headshot of Rebecca Lange.

Rebecca Lange

Rebecca Lange is an AmeriCorps NCCC alum and currently serves in the U.S. Air Force.