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We cannot miss this big moment for national service

A person plants a tree

It has been a long journey for one of the best ideas to heal a divided America: large-scale civilian national service. Within weeks, dreams to provide a significant number of young people the opportunity to perform a year of service to the nation could be fulfilled through a new Civilian Climate Corps. Let’s hope Congress fulfills that dream.  

History tells us that big moments for national service are rare. In the depths of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt seized the moment and deployed 250,000 young, unemployed men into his Civilian Conservation Corps within a few months. Over the program’s nine-year life, more than 3 million Americans planted 3 billion trees, saved an acreage of land equivalent to our National Park System, and earned money to feed their families. But it did something more — in talking to the remaining “CCC boys” who served, they described it as a spiritual experience that gave them purpose.

It took nearly 30 years before the national service idea found traction again. President John F. Kennedy’s off-the-cuff speech at the University of Michigan at the end of his presidential campaign in 1960 resulted in a scroll signed by tens of thousands of college students telling Kennedy they would serve in his Peace Corps. Kennedy envisioned a Peace Corps that engaged 100,000 Americans annually. Despite its positive impact and deep support, however, the program deploys only 7,300 Americans abroad every year.  

A parade of national service programs would follow. They vary from President Lyndon Johnson’s Volunteers in Service to America as part of his War on Poverty to President George W. Bush’s Freedom Corps after 9/11. Notwithstanding the power of these programs to solve problems at low cost to taxpayers, they remained largely at pilot levels.

In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act into law, which would have grown national service to 250,000 slots annually, up from approximately 75,000 positions each year. But Congress never funded that authorization. Last year, Congress spent $3 trillion for recovery during the COVID-19 pandemic, and national service programs received only $1 billion over three years to increase slots by just 15,000 a year, increasing the annual budget for these programs by only one-third.  

Today, the CORPS Act — a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by, among others, Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who served in AmeriCorps, and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) — would increase the living stipend so more Americans of all backgrounds can serve in these programs. But it still awaits movement in Congress.

We now find ourselves on the precipice of a significant investment in deploying young people to serve our nation for at least one year on projects that will contribute to addressing climate change. In the reconciliation bill, Congress is prepared to fund $30 billion for this new Civilian Climate Corps, which builds on the existing network of 140 service and conservation corps.

This level of funding is historic and careful stewardship of resources demands quality implementation. Civilian Climate Corps members must be engaged in meaningful service — such as brownfield remediation, energy audits, solar panel installation, urban gardening and conservation of rivers and parks — that generates real results. 

National service must be available to all. The recruitment and enrollment for the Civilian Climate Corps must target low-income and environmental justice communities, engaging young people of color and other underrepresented populations. Organizations that serve these communities and engage in conservation corps programming should be given additional funding. 

The effort must work across government and civil society. Not every community is near federal public lands, and climate change is happening in urban and rural communities. The Departments of Interior and Agriculture that historically have been excellent federal partners of the service and conservation corps should be joined by the Departments of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Energy, and Health and Human Services and State Service Commissions. And the Corporation for National and Community Service (AmeriCorps) has decades of experience in running national service programs.  

We must remember that the existing service and conservation corps are largely nonprofit organizations. Some Civilian Climate Corps funding must assist these organizations in capacity-building so they can successfully accommodate more national service members.  Funding also should be used for new service and conservation corps programs. 

For the Civilian Climate Corps to be truly successful, it will require strong leadership from the White House. As was done after 9/11, the White House should establish a position reporting directly to the president and a council of departments and agencies to coordinate the Civilian Climate Corps and hold the initiative accountable for results.

America, across all its divisions, could use the big idea of national service to foster a generation of diverse leaders who can work together to get things done. In the Civilian Climate Corps, national service finally may have found its moment.

John M. Bridgeland is vice chairman of the Service Year Alliance and former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President George W. Bush, where he led national service efforts after 9/11.  

Mary Ellen Sprenkel is president and CEO of The Corps Network.

Tags AmeriCorps Barack Obama Chris Coons Civilian Conservation Corps Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act Roger Wicker

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