Living the Compact’s Values through National Service

May 7, 2021

National service is in the national conversation. AmeriCorps received a $1 billion investment as part of the American Recovery Act and additional legislation to increase funding for national service has a real chance of passing. Just this week, the New York Times editorialized in favor of making a year of service a social norm for all Americans through a major investment in service opportunities.

These are welcome developments, and they got me thinking about the key role national service programs play in Campus Compact’s work to engage higher education in developing more just and equitable communities as building blocks for a healthier democracy. Here I share a few reflections on that topic.

First, some facts: Campus Compact operates two AmeriCorps programs through our national organization. These are in addition to many AmeriCorps programs operated by state and regional affiliates of Campus Compact. One of the national programs is K2H Civic Futures, which engages full-time and part-time AmeriCorps members in efforts to build partnerships between higher education institutions and K-12 schools focused on civic learning. We also operate an AmeriCorps VISTA program through which AmeriCorps members activate higher education institutions to build capacity for systems that fight poverty on and off-campus. 

To see how these programs advance Campus Compact’s goals, you need to know what those goals are. Our work is motivated by a vision of full participation communities and a full participation democracy. We mean full participation in two senses. First full participation means everyone has the opportunity to participate, which requires naming and challenging the barriers that prevent so many Americans from doing so—barriers of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and more.

Second, full participation means everyone has the opportunity to participate fully—in the political, economic, social, and cultural dimensions of community life. We believe that higher education has a crucial role to play in getting us to full participation. Our work is to encourage colleges and universities to take up the challenge and to help them meet it successfully.

In that context, it’s easy to see why these AmeriCorps programs are critical to the realization of Campus Compact’s vision. Each of our AmeriCorps programs represents our vision in action. Our K2H Civic Futures program is helping colleges and universities leverage their capacity to ensure that every K-12 student is equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary for effective participation in democracy. In so doing, we are creating opportunities for college students to build their civic skills while serving as coaches and mentors. In our VISTA program, AmeriCorps members are working every day to ensure that colleges and universities are actively working to eliminate poverty as a barrier to full participation in their communities. By helping children, parents, college students, and veterans overcome educational barriers, hunger, and housing insecurity—among other challenges—the members serving in our VISTA program are positioning individuals to focus on the activities they believe will help their families and improve their communities.

Our AmeriCorps programs also exemplify a central principle of Campus Compact’s theory of change. We believe the way higher education can make change happen is through partnerships—with local schools, local governments, community groups, and other mission-focused organizations. At their most fundamental level, partnerships rely on people who serve as connectors, building relationships with purpose. Campus Compact’s AmeriCorps members are those connectors, building relationships between and among organizations and institutions that will have continuing value for their communities long after a specific member’s term is over.

Just as these partnerships continue to yield public benefits well into the future, so the Campus Compact AmeriCorps experience continues to benefit members as well. With decades worth of AmeriCorps cohorts as evidence, the value of the experience shines brightly. Our AmeriCorps alumni have used their experience as springboards, launching them into careers in education, public service, and a myriad of other career fields. Their leadership is an ongoing resource for Campus Compact, as we have friends and allies leading change all over the United States. As an Employer of National Service, Campus Compact also benefits from AmeriCorps alumni of programs operated by other organizations, as roughly half of our staff across the country have completed a year of service along the way.

The long months since the pandemic struck the United States have taught different people different lessons. Nearly all of us, though, have seen how divided we are and how our divisions have prevented us from meeting the challenges that face us. Campus Compact’s AmeriCorps programs provide a concrete demonstration of the role national service can play in bringing us together. Our members are building change while building the skills that will make them positive contributors to their communities and our democracy throughout their lives.

We may not all agree on the steps to achieving more just and inclusive communities. We can agree, however, that any path we take will be led by public-spirited people with the skills and experience to connect people across differences for positive change. Those people are national service alumni, and we are fortunate at Campus Compact to be able to create opportunities for them to become the leaders and community members we need.

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