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This Is Why You’re Here: What AmeriCorps Means to Our Country and to Us

December 8, 2015

Ben Duda headshotAs Congress is in the final stages of budget deliberation on AmeriCorps funding, we wanted to share the speech our Co-Executive Director, Ben Duda, gave to new AmeriCorps members on Georgia’s AmeriCorps Opening Day Ceremony on October 16, 2015. The opening day was a great moment to reflect on the promise of each new class of AmeriCorps and the potential they have to make an even greater impact as AmeriCorps alumni. With Congress debating the importance of service, we, as alums, must remember our role and responsibility to protect this opportunity for our current AmeriCorps class and the hundreds of thousands more who could serve next year. Join us and #StandforService.

AmeriCorps was life changing for me, and it will be for you too. As part of my service with the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps and Citizen Schools, I built strong friendships, had powerful experiences in service, and worked my tail off.

Like many of you, I was thrown in head-first from the moment my service began and was asked to plan an MLK Day project for 500 volunteers in Washington D.C.—I had been in AmeriCorps only three months! But this is why we’re here. Why you’re needed.

National service is one of our country’s most impressive inventions. Together, we deploy in service to each other and our communities, so that we can make progress against our country’s most pressing challenges. It was in AmeriCorps that I witnessed the academic and personal growth of a classroom of mostly first-generation 6th grade boys in Boston. It was because I was trained in AmeriCorps too, that I served as a first responder in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy at Ground Zero.

And now I have the honor of co-directing the national alumni network, making sure that every member—YOU and every alum—has an opportunity to achieve their fullest potential and be a leader in making communities safer, stronger, and healthier. Because we still face very real challenges. Let’s take a look at the real challenges confronting Georgia — which are similar to the ones that AmeriCorps members are addressing across the country:

  • Compared to the national average Georgia has: higher poverty, higher unemployment and more youth not in school and not working, and also has less access to grocery and produce vendors, and less access to banking (data from Opportunity Index).
  • Atlanta has one of the lowest Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rates among big city school districts, and while graduation rates in the state are up over the last five years, they are still significantly below the national average (see report from GradNation).
  • Measures of civic health show Atlantans connect to causes but also have Atlanta metro ranked near the bottom in volunteering (34th), and on measures of social cohesion like exchanging favors with neighbors (28th) or eating dinner with household members (44th) according to the NCoC (National Conference on Citizenship) 2015 Civic Health Index.
  • And 28 percent of Georgia’s children live in food insecurity (Atlanta Community Food Bank 2014 data report).

This is why you’re here. This is why you and 75,000 AmeriCorps members made a commitment to a lifetime of service this year. This is why strong local and national nonprofits are deploying AmeriCorps members – YOU – to address these issues head on. Georgia’s AmeriCorps programs like Playworks, College Advising Corps, Teach for America, Hands On Atlanta, Equal Justice Works, Year Up, Youth Build, Habitat for Humanity, ServiceWorks, Jumpstart, and so many more have a rich tradition of mission and impact. You are part of this legacy and are joining a national community of more than 950,000 alums.

AmeriCorps will be hard. You will find doubt. You may want to quit. BUT DON’T. As the Co-Executive Director of AmeriCorps Alums, I’ve seen what comes out on the other side. I’ve seen young people who change their path from being in AmeriCorps. I talk to colleges and companies all the time that say, “AmeriCorps on the resume takes you to the top of the pile.” AmeriCorps has taken alumni to jobs at the Red Cross, the State Department, and Google. We are mayors, U.S. Senators, lawyers, bankers, nurses, teachers, nonprofit executives, and more. Every place you find someone trying to get things done, you’ll find an AmeriCorps alum.

So how do you do this work both this year and beyond? Here are three things to keep in mind:

  • Listen First and Fiercely. Communities have experts that come in lots of shapes and sizes. I learned more about race, ethnicity and national origin from students in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood than I did in any book.
  • Find Allies and Experts. Partnerships take time and trust, but to be effective in your service you’re going to need to invest your time and your self in the individuals and organizations that you’re serving in and serving with. The community development nonprofit my NCCC team served with in Cincinnati gave us lots of credibility in a neighborhood that was very distrusting of outsiders.
  • NEVER make Assumptions. Schools can be failing but still filled with wisdom. Communities can appear poor, but still are rich in resources. It will always be better for you to be the humble learner than the brash observer. I didn’t understand how Habitat really worked, but after serving side-by-side in AmeriCorps with a future homeowner, and then seeing his face when he saw his family’s home was completed and that they could move from their trailer to a home with space for home-schooling and bedrooms for four kids, I got it. It was one of the most powerful experiences in my life.

You’re in this now. You’re part of the AmeriCorps family. The A connects each of you, to each other and to me. You can even sign up for AmeriCorps Alums today for our free trainings, inspirational stories, and member benefits. You’re part of a national service movement that is continuing to influence how we as a nation think about the responsibilities of being a citizen. I thank you today for your service and your leadership.

stand4service_instagram-FBWelcome to AmeriCorps!

And please take a minute to #Stand4Service. Our partners at Voices for National Service, remind us that it only takes a few clicks to show your support for AmeriCorps. If you haven’t already, click here to share messages and use pre-drafted posts from Voices for National Service on Facebook and Twitter to urge Congress to protect national service funding and #Stand4Service.

Author Bio: Ben Duda completed two years and more than 4,000 hours of service in the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) as a Corps member and team leader. In addition, Ben served as a teaching fellow for middle school students with Citizen Schools’ AmeriCorps program in Boston. Dedicated to increasing civic engagement and impact, Ben then spent five years after AmeriCorps as a senior program manager with KaBOOM! He grew and led a major campaign to increase the engagement of mayors and city residents in supporting play and physical activities. Before transitioning to his role as the Co-Executive Director of AmeriCorps Alums in 2011, Ben served on Alums’ founding Leadership Council. Ben holds a M.P.P. in Urban Policy from The Johns Hopkins University, and a B.S. in Industrial and Labor Relations from Cornell University.

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