Over the course of a typical year at Our City Forest lots of things happen. Plant sales and Bare Roots at the nursery, Tree Amigo workshops, plantings at schools, pruning and outreach events dominate our calendar year. This January something special happened. A fresh class of Americorps members took their oaths of service, formally joining the team. It’s a good thing, injecting Our City Forest with new energy, fresh faces, perspectives and talent. What is Americorps? Who are the Americorps members? The answer is bigger than Our City Forest.
Americorps is something that not everybody knows about or understands. Broadly, it’s a national program of civil service supported by the Federal government with the goal of “helping others and meeting the needs in the community.” Americorps is enormous, overseeing state, national, conservation disaster-relief and poverty-fighting programs. It’s part of a long history of national service organizations dating back to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
You may have heard of the CCC. Founded during the Great Depression, as a work-relief program to employ the many thousands of out of work, young men, the CCC implemented a massive natural resource conservation effort in every state. While receiving food, shelter, clothing and a small wage ($5 a month to the CCC member, $25 a month to their families), the CCC members would plant nearly 3 billion trees, construct national parks, service roads and buildings in remote areas. 635,000 men, 200,000 black, 350,000 white and 85,000 Native Americans served in segregated camps. Parallel to the CCC, She-She-She camps were organized by Eleanor Roosevelt to offer young women employment in forestry and conservation. Both program’s assets were reallocated to the Army and Navy with the onset of WW2 in 1942, but were never officially terminated.
The team-based, community and conservation service model of the CCC was eventually emulated by various state conservation corps programs. Following the end of WW2, a number of congressional representatives proposed creating international service organizations but these failed to pass both houses. President John F. Kennedy would eventually create such an organization, the Peace Corps, by executive order in 1961, sending young people abroad to promote diplomacy, local development and international awareness among returning Americans. President Lyndon Johnson would provide the next push for domestic public service with the Volunteers In Service To America program, part of the Great Society. VISTA was conceived as the Peace Corps within America, offering loans for community service in low-income areas.
During President Clinton’s administration VISTA was folded into the newly conceived Americorps Program along with the National Civilian Community Corps, FEMA Corps, and the State and National division. NCCC functions like the CCC with a more regional and locally-driven focus. The State and National division provides local and national nonprofits, faith-based organizations, public agencies and intuitions of higher education with Americorps member/volunteers to engage in community service projects. In our case that means planting, caring for, and educating the public about the benefits of a healthy urban forest. Incidentally, this blog is almost entirely written by Americorps members. In other organizations, Americorps members conduct after-school tutoring, build houses or other community service activities.
So what is service? If you don’t mind my getting personal I’ll tell you what it is for me. Service is my opportunity to use my education and expertise for something greater than myself. I have multiple degrees in biology and microbial disease. I’ve been engaged in research for my entire career in higher education. With all of my research projects I never felt like I was engaging the public or making a concrete difference in the lives of others. By maintaining this blog, planting and caring for trees, I make an immediate impact in the communities of the Silicon Valley. In the case of planting trees, this impact only gets larger as the trees get older and better at providing ecosystem services (something I’ve covered in detail in earlier posts). My service story, my feelings about serving, my challenges and struggles, are not the only ones. To that end, I’ll be posting semi-regular interviews with different Americorps members at Our City Forest so you can better understand who we are, what motivates us and the struggles inherent to committing to a term of service.