May 5, 2009

Making Service Work

Like many volunteer service workers, I came to Bread for the City filled with things like hope and idealism; after eight months here, all that has butted up against endless emails to Social Security administrators, frustrating phone calls with landlords, endless paperwork, and a level of income that happens to qualify me for food stamps. But as a result, I have a more complete appreciation for how difficult it is to climb out of poverty. And that has been as valuable to me as any education.

This work is of immense value to the community. Michelle Obama recently acknowledged it when she wrote in an op-ed that, “the nation needs youthful idealism more than ever.” Her article itself was vindication for the work that my colleagues and I have done all year. She was writing in recognition of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which her husband recently signed into law.

The Act has been hailed as a bill that “will change the course of history and civic responsibility in our country." And indeed, it’s a helpful step toward a revival of civic participation in America – but with all due respect, it’s very much a first one.

The Serve America Act vastly increases the number of AmeriCorps “education awards” (which provide debt relief for student loans), but the increase in size of awards is small: from $4,725 to $5,350. Such funding isn’t quite negligible, but even as a recent graduate in thousands of dollars of student debt, I wouldn’t say that an increase of six hundred dollars or so is substantial.

In my experience this funding is not a primary motivating factor in driving someone to service. It’s the “youthful idealism,” rather than the funding, that makes these slots so competitive.

My own service was conducted through the Lutheran Volunteer Corps (which is not technically part of AmeriCorps, though we can receive AmeriCorps education awards). LVC also provides participants with additional financial support, a programmatic structure, and living accommodations within an intentional community. Through this community, I’ve found the support and inspiration to sustain a year of low pay and difficult work. And with the LVC’s support, Bread for the City has provided me the space and trust to try my hand at the work of social justice. As a result, I consider this year of service to have been a privilege.

And yet, that privilege itself is not as widely available and readily exercised by young Americans as it could be. Debt prevents so many from participating, and those who try anyway must struggle to attain loan relief. Even if a year or more of service can be financially feasible, many are daunted without a proper social network or access to a feasible living situation. Opportunities to serve are taken to best advantage when there is sufficient support inside the program.

Supportive living conditions; sustained and sustaining financial support; social engagement – these are the critical components of my successful service. Through improvements designed to foster these conditions, AmeriCorps could become an even more powerful engine of volunteerism and civic participation.

We’ll be discussing these issues in greater depth in the coming week. It’s an exciting time for those committed to service and social justice, and we hope to see more great progress made in the years to come.

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