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Fifty years ago, the newly-elected President John F. Kennedy ‘40 addressed the country on a frigid January morning. In an inaugural address that has been quoted as many times as a single speech can be, President Kennedy posed a potent challenge to the nation: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country."
Since the beginning of the Volunteers in Service to America program in 1964, millions of young Americans have aspired to fulfill President Kennedy’s challenge with meaningful service to their communities, and it is in this legacy that AmeriCorps was founded in 1993. Envisioned as a way to unite an entire generation to better our country, our nation’s flagship service organization has since allowed over 540,000 Americans to strengthen their communities through initiatives in education, public safety, health care, and the environment.
AmeriCorps has long enjoyed bipartisan support. President George H.W. Bush laid the foundation for the program, with his vision for “a thousand points of light.” President William J. Clinton championed the creation of AmeriCorps, and President George W. Bush proudly expanded the program, hailing its enormous impact. In 2009, more than a third of House Republicans and more than half of Senate Republicans voted to quadruple the number of AmeriCorps members as part of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act.”
Yet despite the millions of hours of service, the thousands of educated students, the countless houses AmeriCorps members have built, streets they have cleaned, and hearts they have lifted, the House of Representatives voted last week for a budget proposal that would cut all of AmeriCorps’ federal funding. As part of a sweeping effort to address the growing federal deficit, House leaders have unwisely committed to slash government support of a host of critical programs, and AmeriCorps is chief among them.
At Harvard, these cuts have a wide impact. As a coalition of university students, prospective Teach for America corps members, and alumni of a variety of AmeriCorps programs, we will experience these cuts personally. The dozens of Harvard seniors who have committed to Teach for America will lose more than $10,000 each in educational grants to cover their certification costs and further their education. The undergraduates who hope to work with AmeriCorps to preserve the environment or serve in a community health clinic will see their opportunities dwindle. The elimination of AmeriCorps will be felt most sharply by America’s already vulnerable communities. The service alumni among us realize that with the loss of every City Year, AmeriCorps, or TFA member, another family and community in need loses an ally.
However dire the state of our national finances, America’s true wealth is on display with the 75,000 people who give themselves to national service every year. Our political leaders are willing to work together to preserve this vital national institution, but they will only do so if we make our voices heard. Fortunately, there is a golden opportunity for us to stand up for AmeriCorps. This afternoon, House majority leader Eric Cantor is coming to speak at the Institute of Politics. We are asking you to stand with us at 5:30 p.m. today to show our leaders in Congress that eliminating AmeriCorps will have a real human impact. We intend to show Leader Cantor that AmeriCorps is more than worth its federal investment.
The effort, however, does not begin or end with the rally, and we need your help if we are to preserve our nation’s investment in our communities. We ask you to join thousands of other supporters in signing the Save AmeriCorps online petition and to contact your congressional leaders on Friday and tell them that you oppose the elimination of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal umbrella agency that incorporates AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and other service programs. There are thousands of young people willing to rise to President Kennedy’s call for service and, as the AmeriCorps Pledge states, “bring Americans together to strengthen our communities.” So that they may rise to this challenge, we, too, must pull together and demand the governmental support for AmeriCorps that it rightfully deserves.
Kate Leist ‘11, a former Crimson sports chair, is an Organismic and Evolutionary Biology concentrator in Adams House and a 2011 TFA corps member. Mikia R. Manley ‘14 lives in Stoughton Hall. Caleb E. Jonas HKS ‘13 is a Social and Urban Policy MPA student at the Kennedy School and a former AmeriCorps VISTA Program Director.
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