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AmeriCorps service nurtures professional development, civic duty | COMMENTARY

AmeriCorps volunteers plant shrubs in a vacant lot in the 2300 block of E. Eager Street in Baltimore in this 2015 file photo. Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun
AmeriCorps volunteers plant shrubs in a vacant lot in the 2300 block of E. Eager Street in Baltimore in this 2015 file photo. Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

You may not be familiar with it, but the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is one of our country’s most notable scholarly organizations. Founded in 1780 during the American Revolution by John Adams (with Benjamin Franklin and George Washington serving as some of its first fellows), the academy recently put out a report entitled Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st century.

This report could not be timelier. With an eye toward the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 2026, the Academy has spent the last two years speaking with people in communities across the United States on how best to shore up our democratic habits. The report was issued in June, months before the raucous end to the 2020 election and the rioting that engulfed the Capitol on Jan. 6.

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We believe that one of the report’s recommendations is essential to strengthening our democracy, the call to: “Establish a universal expectation of a year of national service and dramatically expand funding for service programs or fellowships that would offer young people paid service opportunities.”

We note this recommendation comes at an important moment. One of the provisions of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan would answer the academy’s call to action with an almost $1 billion increase in the AmeriCorps program. With the wrangling over high-profile items like the $15 minimum wage getting extensive coverage, this historic increase in funding for AmeriCorps has received scant attention. The additional dollars for national service would fund a dramatic expansion of the number of AmeriCorps positions available nationwide.

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Service is the bedrock of our democracy, and recent college graduates are clamoring for a chance to serve through AmeriCorps. Driven by a mixture of pragmatism (the job market is tough) and idealism (a search for a role with meaning), we have seen dramatic increases in applications for spots in our own programs — the Great Oaks Foundation and Baltimore Collegiate School for Boys. In February 2020, 108 people applied for a yearlong fellowship as an AmeriCorps member with us. Last month, February 2021, that number had more than doubled to 239 applicants.

For many young people, a year of service through AmeriCorps is a springboard not only into their professional lives but into active roles as community members and citizens.

Take Joel Chapman, who served as a tutor in Newark, New Jersey, in 2014 and is an exemplar of the exponential impact AmeriCorps has on communities. Mr. Chapman, who had recently graduated from college when he began his year of service, applied himself diligently to the children he tutored. After completing the school year, he applied the scholarship he earned as an AmeriCorps member — a Segal Education Award — toward graduate school study, eventually earning a master’s degree.

Shortly after he finished, Mr. Chapman became a Big Brother and continues to serve as a mentor to a young man he was matched with through that program, as well as completing internships in several education reform organizations. Today he is a research analyst in the nonpartisan New Jersey Office of Legislative Services, working for the common good and living out the values that were reinforced during his year of service as an AmeriCorps member.

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According to the notes of James McHenry, a Maryland delegate to the constitutional convention in 1787, Elizabeth Willing Powell, the wife of the mayor of Philadelphia approached Benjamin Franklin at the conclusion of the proceedings and posed this question to him, “What have we got a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin’s ominous and much-quoted reply — “A republic, if you can keep it” — challenges us to do what we can to sustain our fragile experiment in democratic self-government.

Expanding national service to more young people is one tangible investment we can make in strengthening our republic and the ties that bind us together as a people. To do this, we will need a generation of recent college graduates to set aside their plans to write the great American novel, join a new tech startup or go to law school and instead heed the call to serve their country through programs of national service like AmeriCorps.

Michael Thomas Duffy (mduffy@greatoakscharter.org) is the president of the Great Oaks Foundation, which places AmeriCorps members in a yearlong fellowship to intensively tutor and mentor students. Jack Pannell (jjpannell@baltimorecollegiate.org) is the founder and executive director of Baltimore Collegiate School for Boys and The Collegiate Schools Foundation, which deploys a cohort of two dozen Great Oaks AmeriCorps members. To learn more or to apply for a fellowship, please visit greatoakscharter.org or baltimorecollegiate.org/fellowship-application.

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