Kindling the Spirit of Democracy

At the AmeriCorps 20th anniversary celebration held at Tufts, volunteers are told they will transform America—and themselves
Jumpstart volunteers take a photo of themselves at the event
Jumpstart volunteers, from left, Jennifer Seidel, A15, Lois Moon, A16, and Kate Morrow, A17, snap a selfie as President Barack Obama addresses AmeriCorps members from Washington. Photo: Kelvin Ma
September 15, 2014

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Wearing his AmeriCorps alumni jacket, Alan Solomont, A70, A08P, dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, welcomed 1,600 young, energized and vocal AmeriCorps volunteers from across the state to the organization’s 20th anniversary celebration Sept. 12 at Tufts.

Solomont has been a part of what many call America’s Peace Corps since it began in 1993, when President Bill Clinton signed legislation that created the bipartisan Corporation for National and Community Service and its signature program, AmeriCorps. The first AmeriCorps “class” was sworn in the next year.

“I was lucky enough to be on the South Lawn of the White House that day,” said Solomont, whom Clinton appointed to the corporation’s founding board of directors; Solomont was elected board chairman in 2009.

Over two decades, AmeriCorps has partnered with a network of nonprofit organizations in nearly every state to send volunteers into communities to teach in their schools, build housing, preserve the environment and aid in disaster recovery.

Volunteers usually sign up for one or two years and are given a small living stipend, plus $5,645 per year of service to be used to finance college or pay off student loans.

“We know that when young people serve, they take part in something greater than themselves—and they don’t just transform communities, they transform themselves,” Solomont told those at the celebration. “It informs who they are and what they will do with the rest of their lives.”

It is fitting that Tufts and AmeriCorps celebrate their shared values together, Solomont said. “Tufts President Tony Monaco recently said that civic engagement is part of the Tufts DNA,” he said. “Tisch College, which prepares students for lives of active citizenship, is where the genetic code for that DNA resides.”

Tufts students and alumni are active in AmeriCorps. In the 2012–13 school year, for example, more than 160 students participated in AmeriCorps; 60 of them worked with Jumpstart, serving more than 200 local low-income, preschool children. Both students and alumni receive the small living stipend as well as the $5,645 education award per year of service that can be used toward college costs.

The Massachusetts celebration at Tufts was replicated across the country and involved many of the more than 900,000 AmeriCorps alumni who have served over the years. A celebration at the White House, featuring speeches by Clinton and President Obama, was simulcast to the Tufts audience.

“Service is the spark that can kindle the spirit of democracy in an age of uncertainty,” Clinton said. Its strength, he said, is in bringing together people from diverse backgrounds and experience to solve problems.

Both Clinton and Obama also took the opportunity to remind Congress of the importance of funding a program that has changed so many lives and benefited so many communities.

This year’s AmeriCorps budget is about $335 million, as it has been for some time. That is enough to maintain 80,000 slots for volunteers, but Clinton and Obama both said the program needs to grow to meet the demand of those who want to serve. Currently, there are five applicants for each AmeriCorps position. In 2009, Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which calls for increasing AmeriCorps membership to 250,000 by 2017. Congress has yet to appropriate the funding needed to meet that target.

“AmeriCorps has changed the life of our nation, and now it’s up to us to make sure it continues,” Obama said. “Because we are not here to celebrate what has already been achieved; we’re here to dedicate ourselves to the work that lies ahead.”

In a statement released earlier on Sept. 12, the White House announced that it would partner with Tisch College to convene higher education, business and community leaders for a Civic Learning and National Service Summit, which will be held at Tufts later this fall.

Will Chrysanthos, A03, who served with AmeriCorps for four years after graduating and then four more helping with Hurricane Katrina recovery in Mississippi, spoke for many at the event when he summed up the significance of the program.

“Just 20 years. In the blink of an eye, AmeriCorps and the national service movement has captured the very best qualities of the American people and amplified them to meet the most challenging and entrenched issues that we face as a country,” he said. “AmeriCorps has seeped into the very fabric of our society and moved us toward a more equitable and benevolent future—and we are its engine.”

Gail Bambrick can be reached at gail.bambrick@tufts.edu.