Former Sen. Harris Wofford (D-Pa.), who passed away Monday, will be remembered for his extraordinary public service — marching alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., advising President Kennedy on civil rights, leading two colleges, and serving in the Senate. In fact, his own record of service in and outside of government makes it easy to overlook one of his most important legacies: calling other Americans to serve.
I had the privilege of working alongside Harris when, as a young staff person for Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), I was assigned to put together a national service bill. Harris was then the secretary of Labor and Industry in Pennsylvania where he was pioneering a model for large-scale national service. As a founder of the Peace Corps and long-time friend of the Kennedy family, he was one of the first people Sen. Kennedy turned to for advice and one of the first to testify for the legislation. While no one thought the bill had much of a chance, with Harris’s help, the bill passed both houses with bipartisan support and was signed by President H.W. Bush.
We reunited a few years later when I worked for First Lady Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRepublicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Poll: Democracy is under attack, and more violence may be the future Popping the progressive bubble MORE, and Harris, then a senator, floor managed a bill I had helped to draft, creating AmeriCorps. A few years later, he became the CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) where I was serving as managing director, at a time when Republican leadership had put the new program in its sites for elimination.
Harris believed his role was not merely to save AmeriCorps through partisan compromise, but to lead a movement, ultimately making national service an enduring, beloved American institution. His philosophy was to release energy, not control it — “to crack the atom of civic power” as he put it, a way of operating that was sometimes at odds with the processes required in a federal agency. And in furtherance of his mission he dreamed the seemingly impossible — bringing all the living presidents together to call the nation to service, which he succeeded in doing in 1997.
While many pine for the days when bipartisan compromise was the norm, it was never easy. It took work — both to establish the relationships that made it possible, and then the stamina to find the right path. Harris understood this and never let up. In this spirit, although he had lost his Senate seat to Rick Santorum, who belittled AmeriCorps as a program for “kids to stand around a campfire to hold hands and sing 'Kumbaya' at taxpayers' expense,” Harris “educated” him until he became both a respected friend and supporter of national service. Thanks to Harris’s tireless work, and inability to take no for an answer, AmeriCorps thrived in the face of opponents’ efforts to defund the program and today, sends 75,000 Americans every year to serve in programs run by national nonprofit organizations, service and conservation corps, and thousands of grassroots organizations.
Harris remained with the cause long after he left AmeriCorps in 2001. Most recently, he served on the Service Year Alliance Leadership Council. And although he was well over 90 and moving slowly with a cane, he made every meeting and remained a close advisor, continuing to believe strongly in our cause, to make a year of service a common opportunity and expectation for all young Americans.
Harris passed away on MLK Day. As a senator and later as head of CNCS, Harris was instrumental in pushing MLK Day as a day of service — “a day on, not a day off.” That was fitting, given Harris’s role, half a century ago, in the civil rights movement and the founding of the Peace Corps. It was Harris’s lifetime of service — in the military, government, and as a citizen volunteer — that convinced him that our country needed national service not just to provide human capital to meet pressing community challenges, but to develop the public-spirited leaders we so badly need. Service Year Alliance continues to work toward this goal because we need more Harris Woffords today in every American institution in and outside of government. If we succeed, it will be due in large part to his legacy.
Shirley Sagawa is the CEO of Service Year Alliance.