Cover Story

Flawed to the Ameri-Corps

Political and religious leaders of many persuasions are talking about ways to renew American civic involvement. President Bill Clinton's prime project is AmeriCorps, a $365 million per year federal program that pays young men and women to do volunteer community service. Many Christian organizations have a different procedure: Missionaries, anti-poverty workers, and others appeal to churches and individuals for support, and begin their work when they have raised adequate funding.

Issue: "Flawed to the Ameri-Corps," Oct. 19, 1996

Two years ago, the Clinton administration planned a publicity blow-out for the start of the president's national-service program. AmeriCorps was intended to be something of a Peace Corps for America's needy, except bigger, bolder, and better. Press agents contacted the media, who prepared to roll out the cameras to record the preened, prepped, and smiley-faced youth workers. But on September 12, 1994, in the early morning hours prior to the big AmeriCorps launch, a man from Massachusetts flew his single-engine plane smack into the side of the White House. The crash took away some headlines from AmeriCorps' first public outing, and the organization has been playing catch-up ever since.

"AmeriCorps invaded my private life in a way that my previous service work never did," says Lida Caraway, a Jackson, Miss., resident who has spent many years in community service. Her first job in Jackson was as director for Sims House, a Christian homeless shelter for women and children. She wanted to work for Habitat for Humanity full-time (she was already volunteering part-time), but says Habitat could only offer her a full-time position if she became an AmeriCorps volunteer.

Mrs. Caraway and others welcomed those Americorps funds, but she now contends that if she had known about all of the strings attached, she would never have become an AmeriCorps member. "There were always memos about wearing your AmeriCorps T-shirts and that sort of thing. My work for Habitat involved handling the weekly house payments, which is an important job. In order to receive AmeriCorps dollars, I basically had to work two jobs, because AmeriCorps had all these things they wanted me to do and a lot of their agenda wasn't as important as what I was supposed to be doing for Habitat. It was very visible work, but I wouldn't call it significant work."

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AmeriCorps demanded that Mrs. Caraway be involved in community-relations projects-community fairs she contends were poorly organized and poorly attended. She was also required to fill out time sheets indicating that she had spent time building up a neighborhood association that would put on a Neighborhood Day. "It was busy work. It took me away from important work. And there was always pressure to make sure AmeriCorps was getting a good image. I remember the first time a national representative came down. When he found out I was already volunteering for Habitat before I joined with AmeriCorps, he wasn't happy. He never used the words 'You don't need to say that,' but he made it clear. It undercut the purpose of AmeriCorps."

Another perspective comes from Anne Ferris, regional director for Teach For America (TFA)-a nonprofit organization that places college graduates in impoverished public schools to serve as teachers: "AmeriCorps insisted that our teachers receive education awards. Some of us saw that as a problem. We have teachers that come from colleges like Brown and Stanford and we place them in public schools serving poor communities. It is already a challenge to get our corps members to be accepted by public school teachers, but then to have them receive about $4,000 on top of their normal salary-we worried that would lead to problems." Ms. Ferris believes it did lead to problems: "I have to say that some of my teachers became, well, too conscious of the additional money."

The other problem Ms. Ferris experienced with AmeriCorps was its insistence that TFA involve itself with public-relations efforts on behalf of AmeriCorps. "We want our teachers to think of themselves as professionals. When AmeriCorps starts telling us our teachers have to wear AmeriCorps T-shirts and talk about their involvement with AmeriCorps, it doesn't help. Look, I know the money came at a time when we critically needed it, but I frankly feel involvement with AmeriCorps changed the mindset of our teacher corps-it diluted our efforts and it made us less focused. It's totally different than what happens when you take money from a foundation or a corporation. They want recognition, but they don't demand that you become part of a crusade for their survival. And involvement with AmeriCorps means you have to do that."

Confronted with allegations that AmeriCorps saddles nonprofits with onerous public-relations obligations and red tape, Mike Fee, who is currently TFA associate director of development, argues that AmeriCorps has a right to demand that its volunteers engage in publicity work. "I'm proud to be involved in efforts to give AmeriCorps more recognition because AmeriCorps gives a sense of cohesion and pride to the service movement. I think that's really important. People should accept it as a part of their obligation to furthering the national service movement." And Reiko Gomez, TFA's director of regional programs, states that with AmeriCorps "there were problems-contradictory documents, constant bureaucratic frustrations-but what do you expect? They were just getting started. I do think they are going to get better and better."


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