AmeriCorps: Social Justice through Economic Injustice


It’s been almost 11 months since I wrote an article about struggling with housing in San Jose. It’s been almost a year in California, a year since I drove three thousand miles in an effort to escape my memories of abuse, to escape familiar sights, to do something meaningful while I collected the pieces. I had hoped to find that meaning in AmeriCorps service. I bought into the rhetoric of national service, of giving myself over for a year to help build something meaningful and important, of stewarding the environment and educating the public. The scholarship money, which could be used on my student loans, the forbearance of my student debt, the stipend and job training were amazing incentives for a poor, recent graduate.

Everything has its price, of course, and the price turned out to be higher than my enthusiasm and my labor: the price was my dignity. I don’t know if it was arrogant to think my enthusiasm could overcome low income and a lack of training and support. I don’t know if I made a difference in this city.

AmeriCorps is a federally-funded program of national community service. Volunteers are stipend-supported so that they can focus on engaging with the community without worrying about starvation or eviction. Every AmeriCorps program works a little differently. Some are roving bands of disaster relief workers, going from epicenter to epicenter. Other programs are focused on things like caring for the elderly or teaching kids to read. I met one team in the California Conservation Corps that was stationed in an abandoned prison. Their point-person told me they rose with the dawn for group exercise and spent most of their time building trails in remote areas.

My program was based out of an environmental nonprofit. They’re “urban forestry” focused, promoting tree-planting, green spaces and ecological restoration in the suburban-urban sprawl of the Santa Clara Valley. We rose before dawn to prepare sites for volunteers, digging in clay, breaking rocks and compacted, urban soil with pick-mattocks. We dug trenches along biomedians. We converted lawns into xeriscape. At the height of the drought we urged the public to stop watering lawns, to deep-root water their trees, to plant for the future.

Thanks in no small part to my “hella sick” (California has infected me) Queereka blogging credentials and Twitter-fu, whenever I wasn’t planting trees or taking care of trees I was glued to a keyboard, writing up blog posts on botany or reaching out to allied organizations. I felt our impact grow under my watch. I saw followers come in. I saw the community begin to pay attention. A couple of times my posts went pseudo-viral and broke traffic records for the website. I arranged a Twitter AMA for our CEO and got her hundreds of thousands of views. All of this I am proud of, all of this felt good. This was the first positive reinforcement I’d had for my writing outside Queereka or my pen-name weird fiction.

Pride. It’s this pride in my work that has made the rest of this so difficult.

AmeriCorps doesn’t pay very much. We, the mostly young, mostly college-educated volunteers, are sustained on government handouts for the poor, SNAP, MediCare, and a taxable stipend of $16,000 a year. In California $16,000 a year for full-time amounts to a little less than eight dollars an hour. That’s two dollars below the state minimum wage of ten dollars an hour. That’s troubling, too, for someone living in San Jose. The MIT Living Wage Calculator estimates a local living wage of $14.25/hr. Our program was among the higher-compensated too; I’ve heard figures as low as $900 a month, poverty-level compensation for this area. Health insurance offered to AmeriCorps members doesn’t comply with the Affordable Care Act.

What’s worse, we are not considered employees. We are stipended volunteers with little, if any, legal protections. Compounding this problem is a general lack of understanding of who or what AmeriCorps is, leading to fun situations like fines, fees and tickets for things like vehicle registration and failing change drivers’ licenses for what amounts to a temp job, or losing insurance coverage. I have no doubt that with worse bosses this situation would have been entirely untenable.

This situation is ripe for abuse and burnout. Poverty is hard enough without workplace protections. As a liminal, temporary workforce, AmeriCorps members are pushed beyond normal workplace expectations. We lost managers in our program. Our teams were left to manage themselves or given to managers who were overtaxed from other teams. One team was literally turned into landscapers for rich, elderly people. We couldn’t convert the lawns of the poor because they often didn’t own their own homes. My team was unsupported by the organization’s budget or grants. We were supposed to provide care and maintenance to the trees we planted. Instead we fielded angry phone calls from residents we couldn’t help. I never saw anybody from the CNCS, the oversight entity that is supposed to monitor nonprofits that use AmeriCorps volunteers.

My “class” of volunteers was not the demographic envisioned by the government, i.e., local people giving back, energizing their communities. We were mostly white. Mostly middle class. Very few of the people I met during AmeriCorps were local; the vast majority came from out of state just after college. Everybody had family support or worked second jobs. The locals lived with family, the out-of-staters relied on parents or savings bonds for first-month’s + last month’s rent + deposits on apartments. All of this impacts the mission. How do you build capacity, how do you engage the community, when there are no locals, when project sites are just project sites and not future picnic sites, places to bring your kids as they grow up? I can only imagine how bad it is in some AmeriCorps programs.

Teach for America, an AmeriCorps program, parachutes similar groups of white, affluent people into underserved schools to “save” them from under performance, churning through them at a 50-80% burnout rate. It’s not surprising. They get a couple weeks of training and are expected to turn failing, underfunded schools into something from “Stand and Deliver”. TFA maintained these positions through exclusive contracts keeping qualified teachers out. FEMA saw a budget slash in 2013 and began aggressively using low-paid, untrained AmeriCorps members as first responders to things like hurricanes. AmeriCorps has many diverse programs so it’s difficult to assess what’s happening in each one. We know that provides volunteers to prisoner re-entry programs, environmental stewardship programs, elderly care, literacy, among other things. All of these things are skilled labor, all of these things are probably performed by undercompensated youths.

During a recent project I was speaking to a supervisor about the imminent end of my term, how much I regretted that I wouldn’t be continuing the blog or social media outreach. I wanted the educational stuff to continue, to grow, to expand. She looked me dead in the eye and said “Well, you could just continue to volunteer on your own time.” I was devastated. Each post took me 16 hours to produce, including researching, writing, promotion, sourcing images, formatting and copy-editing. I was an editorial staff of one. I’d grown a follower base. I’d reached thousands of people. I’d gotten subscribers. I was barely functioning on the stipend and was being asked to work for free. A couple weeks later I was cornered by the CEO of the organization and told, “If you’re really passionate about this you need to write up a proposal so we can hire somebody part time, maybe ten hours a week, to do your job”.

How about no?

This, more than anything, illustrates to me the biggest problem with AmeriCorps. This program, this system, incentivizes the conversion of entry-level positions to volunteer positions. It promotes the recruitment of young, debt-ridden, middle-class college grads at the expense of local residents. It reflects badly on the nonprofit sector, employing a bunch of temporary, low-paid grunts in direct opposition to social justice objectives. I ask, what person from a low-income background could afford to do AmeriCorps? What family support could they reasonably expect? Where else but the nonprofit sector would we pump untrained enthusiasts and expect them to make a difference? What if we had done this to the auto industry or real estate or banking?

The whole scenario reminds me of PhD stipends: low pay, long hours, stress, no workplace protections, the ethos of the work being its own sake, the talk of mission, the over-recruitment from middle class whites, the stress and burnout. Both AmeriCorps and graduate school teach young people that their labor is not valued, warping what labor means. Both AmeriCorps and grad school are in labor limbos, regarded as work and not work. Both prompt confused stares from family, friends and strangers who do not understand what you’re talking about. The one advantage AmeriCorps has is that it’s temporary.

What to do about this? I’d argue that AmeriCorps needs to ditch the “service” and “volunteer” rhetoric altogether and become a jobs program for new graduates. The stipends need to be raised to local living wage standards and their healthcare must be re-tooled to comply with the ACA. We have a model for this in the Depression-era parent of AmeriCorps, the Civilian Conservation Corps, a jobs program that served the public good. Our first state and national parks were built by the CCC. The people involved were fairly compensated for their time and labor. It was so popular and successful that it provided the model for many state conservation corps, a rare example of Federally-inspired state policy. One of the reasons this worked was because it was thought of as a real jobs program, not service. It reflected the needs and the ethos of the time.

AmeriCorps, beholden to a hostile Congress, struggling to define what “service” is hasn’t reached its intended size of one million members and has failed to breach into the national consciousness.  It peaked in the Bush administration with 88,000 volunteers annually. Obama has tried to push it to 270,000 only to run into stiff opposition. I’m not sure I want these efforts to succeed. I’m not sure the answer to my generation’s 10-11% unemployment rate and 44% underemployment rate is 270,000 new $13,000/year temporary service positions.  I’m not convinced it’s a good thing for nonprofits to churn through AmeriCorps members like the fast food industry burns through workers. If AmeriCorps is to live up to its promise of community service it can’t continue to operate in this way. It needs to compensate its members fairly, at least the prevailing minimum wage. It needs to offer the same workplace protections as a real job. It needs to be as high profile as possible so that Americans understand what it is and how it serves their communities. In other words, AmeriCorps needs to emulate the CCC. We’ve done this before. We need to do it again.

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  1. The “social justice isn’t connected to economic justice” meme is nothing new. I can honestly trace it to Reagan, but it got huge under Clinton. It’s like Lee Atwater’s quote about going from foghorn racism to increasingly tangentially connected signaling had reversed: We were going from “oh, I’ll start in Philadelphia, Mississippi, visit all those Confederate and Klan monuments and lynching sites” to “ads about a black murderer” to “sure, I belong to a white-only country club, but you made a lame joke about killing white people”.

    What’s interesting is, Bush Jr went out of his way to <em>not</em> be a racist Republican, though I can’t say the same for Jeb!’s being “a real nerd” for race and IQ pseudoscience.

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