COVID-related National Service cannot just be gap year for privileged youth
America has a long and rich history of national service, often turning to it as a powerful lever in times of crisis, as it did after 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the Great Recession of 2008. Now should be no different.
A massive expansion of service is required to meet today’s challenges. It has the potential not only to help build or rebuild much-needed community support systems ravaged by this pandemic, but also — if designed intentionally — to be an integral part of the nation’s intergenerational poverty-interruption arsenal. How we drive that expansion and whom it serves must be central to our approach if we expect national service to meet our society’s most urgent post-COVID needs.
Thankfully, this pandemic will likely inspire a new wave of national service. But it is imperative that those who enlist aren’t just the most privileged people who can most afford to do so; rather, they should be as representative of and accountable to the hardest hit areas as possible. The new opportunities for national service must be fulfilled by Americans who reflect the full tapestry of diverse backgrounds, voices and experiences that make up our nation — especially those who already live in the communities of color disproportionately affected by this crisis.
The pandemic is ravaging communities of color and laying bare the inequities in our social safety nets. In Michigan alone, Black Americans constitute 14 percent of the state’s population — but 40 percent of coronavirus deaths. It has been reported that the virus is twice as deadly for Black and Latino people in New York City as compared to whites. And in Milwaukee, while Black Americans are only 26 percent of the population, they account for an astounding 81 percent of the deaths there.
These racial and ethnic disparities are stark but sadly not surprising. Since their creation, most of our country’s institutions and systems were designed, intentionally or not, to prevent the full participation of communities of color. COVID-19 has only served to highlight some of the long-standing gaps in our social safety nets. We have an opportunity to begin reshaping our institutions and the future by creating the next wave of national service — one fueled by the proximate leadership required to meet this moment effectively.
These volunteers will be the everyday heroes who help us coordinate food distribution for families left economically vulnerable. They will support schools in closing the educational gaps that have widened by schools shuttering. They will leverage their familiarity with neighborhoods, people, support systems and their cultural competence to build trust, neighbor to neighbor, to ensure we can trace, isolate and tame this devastating disease.
First, federal legislation that expands national service must address the challenges that have historically hindered fuller participation among communities of color. National service has successfully served as a career pipeline for participants, but one that has worked most reliably for well-intentioned young white people from affluent families who can afford to take a “gap year” with a minimal stipend. We are pleased that the Pandemic Response and Opportunity Through National Service Act, recently introduced by Sen. Chris Coons, addresses this inequity by proposing an increase of the AmeriCorps living allowance to offer greater financial support to all who are willing to serve.
Second, national policy must incentivize and prioritize the recruitment and deployment of local, proximate leadership. By extending and encouraging grants from innovative programs focused on deploying AmeriCorps members locally, national service can not only address social challenges while fueling civic engagement, but also become a poverty killer with exponential benefits in transforming our most vulnerable communities.
Lastly, organizations with deep local roots in the areas ravaged by the virus must be seen as — and resourced to be — part of the solution. We at Public Allies are proud to be one of the original AmeriCorps service programs and, over the course of our history, have recruited, developed and activated thousands of homegrown leaders — those closest to the challenges — to contribute to developing and implementing solutions. Former first lady Michelle Obama described Public Allies as being “all about promise — finding it, nurturing it and putting it to use. It was a mandate to seek out young people whose best qualities might otherwise be overlooked and to give them a chance to do something meaningful.”
As we look to rebuild our institutions in a post-COVD world, let’s not overlook the emerging leaders who live in the areas hardest hit by the pandemic. Join us in calling for a next wave of national service composed of diverse, equity-driven, innovative leaders poised to work across silos, sectors, generations, and communities to redesign a post-pandemic future by and for everyone.
Jaime Ernesto Uzeta is the CEO of Public Allies, a national movement committed to advancing social justice by engaging the leadership capacities of young people. The ASU Lodestar Center has operated Public Allies Arizona since 2006.