Why is Report for America 'national service'?

Why do we call Report for America “national service”?

Of course we think local journalism IS public service. That’s sort of the point of Report for America. But we also see this program as a synthesis between two different movements – the efforts to reform journalism, and the national service movement.

At our training for the 2018 corps at the Poynter Institute, I walked through some of the history of the service movement.

First, there’s a distinction between “volunteerism,” “public service jobs” and “national service.” Volunteering is crucially important and major part of America’s civic culture. Think of that as occasional and unpaid.  Then you have “public service jobs” – basically government jobs with a public-facing mission, like teachers, police and fire fighters.

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National service is something different. It generally refers to full-time, non-profit, lightly compensated efforts.  In each case, the programs have benefits to both the people doing the service – i.e. the servers – and the public.

The largest ever was the Civilian Conservation Corps under the New Deal. Franklin Roosevelt started it during the Great Depression to help both the servers (by providing jobs) and the nation by cleaning up the nation’s parks.  There were 300,000 per year at one point. A total of 9 million went through the program.

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The goal was both to instill pride, confidence and appreciation of the outdoors – and to transform America’s forests and parks.  The corps members planted 3 billion trees and upgraded 800 parks.

The next major service program was the Peace Corps, started in 1961. This was cast by President Kennedy as both a call to idealism and a way to defeat the Soviet Union in the war for hearts and minds in the developing world.  So far 230,000 have been through the Peace Corps.

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In the 1980s and 1980s, a different type of national service approach emerged. These programs were created privately and locally. Responding to the sense that the federal government would not be addressing local problems, an amazing group of social entrepreneurs created programs like City Year, Teach for America, Delta Service Corps, Citizen Schools, and YouthBuild.

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These programs vary tremendously – some emphasize education, some housing, some education. Some, like City Year, aspire to create a way for people of different classes and races to work together on common civic projects. 

Then in 1993 AmeriCorps was created.  It was highly decentralized but with federal government money subsidizing both the corps members stipends and an education award to pay for college.  It currently has about 80,000 people serving n 21,000 locations. In total, more than a million people have served in AmeriCorps. They enabled some of those great local programs to expand. 

Often, existing volunteer programs like Habitat for Humanity and Big Brothers ended up deploying large numbers of AmeriCorps members to lead their volunteers or tackle major projects. More recently, the Service Year Alliance has attempted to knit together private groups (including those not in AmeriCorps) to create and promote programs that let people have a “service year.”

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Report for America is the first major national service program for journalists.  We obviously hope that the corps members benefit tremendously – developing great skills, learning about a new community, and, frankly, having a life changing challenge.

But the benefits to the server are actually secondary to the benefits to the community. If the reporters aren’t doing great work – helping to transform local journalism – then the program wont succeed.  Just as the CCC wouldn’t have been so worthwhile if it hadn’t dramatically improved the nation’s parks, Report for America aspires to help strengthen communities through great local reporting.

Steven Waldman