mixed greens

The spirit of service

Posted 11/11/20

As the calendar would have it, my deadline for this column falls on November 3, which means that I am writing in the days leading up to Election Day, but my column will appear a week later when, I …

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mixed greens

The spirit of service


As the calendar would have it, my deadline for this column falls on November 3, which means that I am writing in the days leading up to Election Day, but my column will appear a week later when, I fervently hope, the results will be known. So this weekend, I am keeping my optimism alive by thinking about some of the inspiring environmental initiatives I’ve learned about recently.

One of these is the proposal to reimagine the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as a “Climate Corps” to address climate change through projects that protect and enhance natural resources around the country. The original CCC grew out of a conservation program Franklin Roosevelt initiated in 1932 as governor of New York. Soon after his inauguration in 1933, President Roosevelt proposed a national version, the first of many New Deal programs designed to provide jobless young Americans with meaningful work. Congress approved the plan within 10 days, and by July 1933, there were 250,000 enrollees living in 1,463 CCC camps around the country. They received lodging, board, work clothes and training. Out of their $30 a month stipend, the equivalent of $590 in 2019 dollars, they were required to send $25 home to their families each month. Ultimately, three million young men participated, learning job skills, regaining their health through adequate food and robust physical work, and building their morale to face the challenges of the Depression and, just a few years later, America’s entry into the Second World War. (Read more about the CCC at www.bit.ly/RRccc46.)

Daniel Munczek Edelman, writing for Yale Environment 360, points out that a number of climate action plans include some version of the CCC idea, including the Biden campaign’s Clean Energy Plan, the Evergreen Action Plan advocated by Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington and House Resolution 7264, the “21st Century Conservation Corps for Our Health and Our Jobs Act," introduced this past June by Rep. Joe Neguse of Colorado. California has already implemented its own statewide program. All of the Climate Corps proposals share a focus on forestry, watersheds, flood control and other mitigation strategies associated with climate change, skills training, a defined time period of commitment to service (usually two years) and a stipend for volunteers who join up. With the economic upheavals caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the proposals share with their Depression-era prototype the ability to provide a financial lifeline and educational opportunities to those hardest hit, while contributing much-needed improvements to infrastructure and the environment, disaster resiliency and community awareness. A Climate Corps could provide preliminary training and work experience to help participants join the burgeoning green economy.

One of Edelman’s best suggestions is that a new Climate Corps should operate through the network already established by AmeriCorps, the public service program created in 1994. Through AmeriCorps, more than 250,000 young men and women have contributed thousands of hours of service to their communities through activities that include afterschool tutoring, adult education, building playgrounds, helping with disaster response, participating in homebuilding and renewable energy projects, assisting veterans and their families, supporting community health outreach, improving public lands and implementing science-based conservation projects.

The AmeriCorps model seems like an excellent conduit for this endeavor. AmeriCorps has already built a dynamic network of partnerships with hundreds of nonprofits, community organizations, faith-based institutions, colleges and universities, and state and local agencies across the country. It has mastered the mechanisms for volunteer recruitment and training, living allowances, scholarships and educational awards. It operates in alliance with state service commissions that help guide the programs to appropriate projects in each state. Here are some examples: New York University’s AmeriCorps program partners with NYU Langone Family Health Centers to provide community health education and outreach in underserved and low-income neighborhoods through the “Healthy Futures” program. In Vermont, the Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Waitsfield provides AmeriCorps volunteers with training and certification opportunities in a range of sustainable building practices through an academic partnership with Sterling College in Craftsbury Common. The Pennsylvania Mountain Service Corps, which serves the Appalachian region, has focused on projects that protect ecosystems and watersheds, improve water quality and enhance public use lands to benefit local residents.

AmeriCorps sets a high value on cultivating morale—“esprit de corps”—among its participants, exemplified by the pledge volunteers take to “get things done for America.” As Doris Kearns Goodwin recounts in “No Ordinary Time,” her Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the home front in WWII, Eleanor Roosevelt viewed the CCC as part of a broader call to service essential to the survival of democracy, as necessary to the national defense as military service. I suppose it’s a little starry-eyed to imagine that a renewed spirit of service might help us get beyond the rancor of the last four years—but I have hope.


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