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Topics: Youth

AmeriCorps Builds Citizens and Communities

AmeriCorps is a national service program whose goal is getting things done: AmeriCorps programs address the nation's education, public safety, environmental, and human needs and achieve demonstrable results, as well as strengthen communities and develop participants. Whether teaching or tutoring a child, walking a beat with a community policing officer, cleaning a stream or immunizing a toddler, AmeriCorps members are working, often in teams, directly with the individuals or area requiring service. There are approximately 20,000 AmeriCorps members serving throughout America, mainly through local non-profits. Increasingly they have come to see their work not just as service, but as building civic capacities so that communities can better solve their problems, and so that participants themselves develop the civic skills and conceptual tools to last for a lifetime of public work, wherever they may go once they leave AmeriCorps.

Manual Index

Preface
Introduction: The Guide Format and the Goals of AmeriCorps
Chapter One: The Framework: Democracy, Citizenship, Politics and Service
Chapter Two: Encouraging (Civic) Responsibility
Chapter Three: Strengthening Community (Capacity)
Chapter Four: Getting Things Done
Chapter Five: Expanding Opportunity
Resources: Glossary, Bibliography, Other

Contents

Preface
Introduction: The Guide Format and the Goals of AmeriCorps
Chapter One: The Framework: Democracy, Citizenship, Politics and Service

Preface

AmeriCorps members are part of a national effort—a national movement— to address our problems. Members and those with whom they work take on the toughest challenges we face as a society: issues of education, violence, health, the environment. AmeriCorps members demonstrate that young people, and others, can be serious players in public life. Their efforts are important to all of us.

The work of AmeriCorps is citizenship in its richest sense. The nation was founded through the spirit of citizenship as public work. Public work is work, whether paid or unpaid, that is visible, important, and that involves a mix of people. Public work builds "the commonwealth": our communities' and our nation's basic foundations, physical, social, and moral.

Public work for the commonwealth stretches far back in time. One story of public work that many inner city communities have found relevant in recent years is from the book of Nehemiah in the Bible. Nehemiah was the Old Testament leader who came back to Jerusalem in 446 BC to lead the Jews in the rebuilding of their capitol, following their captivity.

"'You see the trouble we are in; Jerusalem is in ruins; its gates have been burned down. Come, let us rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and suffer this indignity no longer!' Nehemiah declared. 'Let us start!' the people exclaimed. 'Let us build!' And with willing hands they set about the good work."

When people in East Brooklyn first used the term "Nehemiah homes" in the early 1980s to describe the houses they were building with low income people, "the story connected our work to something real, not something bogus," explained one participant. "It got it out of the 'housing' field and made it something more than housing." People saw themselves as rebuilding themselves as a community, as a people.

AmeriCorps adds to rich American traditions of public work and public service begun by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and 1940s. The Civilian Conservation Corps enlisted millions of young people from farms and poor communities in the work of building parks, dams, bridges, community centers, roads and conservation projects. Work was hard; tools were shovels, sledgehammers, and axes. But their works remain in every corner of the country—fine public monuments to the craft and energy of citizens. "We have a park; it was wilderness before and now it's a nice place to go," said Robert Ritchie, a CCC participant from Hansell, Iowa. "You feel that you were a part of the country and of history. I was part of an important event."

AmeriCorps members today are making history in this country. Whether immunizing children; building houses; helping to make neighborhoods safer or doing environmental cleanups, you are doing work that has potential for lasting impact.

Through your effort you are also reviving America's most basic idea. We can't revitalize America unless we are engaged in the public work of America. Through the striking cultural, racial, geographic, and economic diversity of AmeriCorps, you add new dimensions to the idea that "public" involves different kinds of people who come together on common tasks. AmeriCorps taps our country's greatest resource: the energy, common sense, and ingenuity of ordinary citizens. This is key to rebuilding our commonwealth.

Introduction

This guide is designed to introduce you—AmeriCorps members and staff—to a set of civic concepts that will give broader meaning to your work, and a set of civic skills to help you do your work more effectively.

The Guide Format and the Goals of AmeriCorps

This guide begins with a chapter on fundamental principles of American civic life: democracy, citizenship, politics, and service. It is from these ideas that the core civic concepts and skills discussed in chapters 2 through 5 follow. These chapters also include exercises to challenge your thinking and approach to your work.

The organizing principle of this guide is the AmeriCorps ethic: Getting Things Done, Strengthening Communities, Encouraging Responsibility, and Expanding Opportunity. However, we have made some adaptations.

First, we have added language to highlight the civic nature of the AmeriCorps mission. Second, we have changed the order of presentation. In AmeriCorps materials, the four components of the ethic are presented in order of importance. In this guide, we present them as steps in a process: Encouraging responsibility and strengthening communities are necessary in order to get things done, to solve our public problems, and as a result opportunities are expanded.

This guide can be integrated into staff development trainings, discussed informally among members, or used as a reference by individuals as they do their work. This guide is meant to be used, changed, added to, and argued with. You need to put its ideas into action, weigh its value against your experience, integrate your own perspectives, and make it your own to give it meaning. Good luck!

Chapter 1: The Framework

Democracy, Citizenship, Politics and Service

Democracy is that form of government in which not only politicians and public employees but all citizens bring life to liberty. It is the practice of self-governance in which ordinary people develop the skills, powers, capacities and imagination for addressing our common problems. It is the system of decision making and action in which rights carry with them a larger sense of social responsibility and engagement.

- The Civic Declaration, 1994

Democracy

America has a long, proud tradition of democracy: We have fought for it, we believe in it, it is a part of who we are. Around the world, thousands of people have struggled and lost their lives to attain it, and millions more celebrate as it becomes a reality.

In spite of this commitment, or perhaps because of it, democracy is a contested concept with a variety of definitions. Most people would argue that democracy means having the right to vote and the other liberties guaranteed by our Constitution. But since elections are held only every few years, and since only about half of the people who can vote do, it can't just be voting—or maybe it's not voting at all—that makes people identify with democratic ideals.

Democracy comes from the Greek words "demos," meaning people, and "kratein," meaning rule or power. In other words, power resides with the people.

Democracy means that we all have a say about how we will govern and be governed, how we will solve our nation's problems, and how we will make our communities places where we want to live. In short, we, the people, have the freedom and responsibility to create our world.

Citizenship

Like democracy, there are many ways to think about being a citizen. Often, people think of citizenship in narrow, legal terms: Citizens are people who have certain guaranteed rights as a consequence of being born or naturalized in the United States. In this case, a good citizen would vote, pay taxes, and obey the law. Others think of citizenship as believing in a certain set of "American" values. In a nation as diverse as the United States, defining citizenship as a "right" way of thinking can exclude as many people as it includes. And today, many people feel excluded.

Citizenship raises particular questions and conflicts born out of the historical, political, and legal experience of people of color in America. For Native Americans, it may symbolize a status imposed on them by force. For Hispanic- and Asian-Americans, it brings up questions of legality and documentation. For African- Americans, citizenship became imaginable after slavery was abolished, but became possible only after their own self- determination and resolve transformed aspirations into action through the sweeping movements for freedom, civil rights, and Black power which began in the 1950's and '60's. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, "This growing self-respect has inspired the [African- American] with new determination to struggle and sacrifice until first class citizenship becomes a reality."

For communities of color, citizenship can offer either a conceptual stumbling block or an entry into the American dream for full participation in democratic governance. Stripped of its legal overtones, citizenship means full participation in the life of an institution, community, or a nation. Citizenship crosses lines of racial, cultural, economic, and ideological division, because it is based on practical need: what people have to do together, whatever their often sharp differences. Thus citizenship is the basis for collaborative public problem solving around the issues of greatest concern. People practice citizenship with others around common tasks, even if they don't like or agree with one another.

This broader way to understand citizenship identifies the citizen as a public actor. A public actor not only has rights, but responsibilities and opportunities to contribute to, and create, public life. Citizens are ordinary people who work together to define what works and what doesn't in their country, their cities, and their neighborhoods, then work to build on what is positive and fix what is negative. Defined this way, anyone can be a citizen, but it is not a status automatically conferred. Citizenship means engaging in public work and public work takes practice.

Politics

Unlike democracy, when people think about politics they often feel angry, frustrated, and powerless—almost never proud. Politics makes people think of corruption, backroom deals, and negative campaign ads on T.V. Politics is something that other people—politicians, bureaucrats, and lobbyists—do, or worse, do to us.

This cynical view of politics is so pervasive that we often believe it is intrinsic. However, people haven't always thought of politics as so base. The word "polis" means activity "of the citizen"—that is, by ordinary people. Politics, in its basic sense, meant the way people made decisions. Thus, it was found everywhere: in the community, in the office, the school, the voluntary group or agency, as well as in government. From this perspective, the partisan games played by politicians, while visible and of certain consequence, were only a small, negative part of a much larger, positive picture. Engaging in politics, understood as the way people made decisions in their public work, gave people the chance to make a difference. People understood that it was something they needed to do—as important as working and raising their families—and something they needed to learn—like reading or playing a sport or an instrument. Politics, understood as the way people made decisions about their public work together, was central to the way that communities created their democracy and people became citizens.

The Service Connection

Today, people of all ages and backgrounds—in AmeriCorps and a myriad of other organizations—are working at the grassroots level to address many of our nation's most intractable problems, improving schools, protecting the environment, fighting poverty, homelessness, and other social ills—and at the same time are having a big impact on government and public policy.

They have decided to be heard and make a difference. They have begun to demonstrate what politics can mean: understanding that ordinary citizens—not experts or political professionals by themselves—possess the wisdom and imagination that is necessary to solve major problems. They have become active, engaged citizens who are not only a part of our democracy, but are creating and sustaining it.

Through their work, people have learned important lessons and shared key insights. These ideas form a conceptual framework that helps them think about their work in larger terms. People across the country have found these ideas helpful as they work to encourage civic responsibility, strengthen community capacity, get things done, and expand opportunity. These are the ideas:

Self-interest: Everyone has their own stories, values, dreams, concerns, and interests. These make up who you are—your self—and the things you care about. They are the things that matter so much to you that they become the reason you take action and step into public life.

Diversity and Public Life: As you enter the public life of a community, you see how it is different from private life. In public, you find people who are not like you—people of different backgrounds, cultures, histories, religions, races, regions, skills, and perspectives. You remain the same person, but as you encounter diversity, your understanding of how you "fit in" changes and grows. You learn the different things that you and others have to offer. Understanding and making use of diversity is a key to solving serious problems. By entering the diverse world of public life, you learn and practice the work of citizenship.

Power: Learning to work with others, even if they are quite different from you, is essential to building and using power. Power is having the ability to act and solve problems. And acting on what matters to you is what citizenship is all about.

Taking Action: Doing the work of citizenship is like learning to run a computer, build a house, or master a sport. It takes thought and practice to know who you are, to deal with diversity, and to act together with other people. Only by experimenting, by putting these ideas into action, can you really get things done.

These are the key ideas of this guide. We hope they will help you think about your work as the work of citizenship, work that will continue long after your AmeriCorps service is complete.

Manual Index

Preface
Introduction: The Guide Format and the Goals of AmeriCorps
Chapter One: The Framework: Democracy, Citizenship, Politics and Service
Chapter Two: Encouraging (Civic) Responsibility
Chapter Three: Strengthening Community (Capacity)
Chapter Four: Getting Things Done
Chapter Five: Expanding Opportunity
Resources: Glossary, Bibliography, Other

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