Ed. note: This is cross-posted on the U.S. Department of Commerce's blog. See the original post here.
Our country is built on a deeply held commitment to service and community. From our women and men in uniform to our educators to those who administer important government programs, each day millions of Americans give of themselves to ensure the safety, hope and livelihood of their neighbor. Without a doubt, one of the great things about the United States is the way in which the success of each of us is tied to the success of all of us.
The AmeriCorps national service program, which celebrates its 20th anniversary today, is a fantastic representation of this. AmeriCorps engages more than 75,000 Americans in intensive service each year at nonprofits, schools, public agencies, and community and faith-based groups across the country. Since the program’s founding in 1994, more than 900,000 AmeriCorps members have contributed more than 1.2 billion hours in service across America while tackling pressing problems and mobilizing millions of volunteers for the organizations they serve.
I had the honor to serve with AmeriCorps and it was a transformational experience. As a kindergarten teacher on the South Side of Chicago with Teach For America, I saw firsthand the inequities faced by too many Americans living in low-income communities around the country. My students, 100% of whom were on free or reduced-price lunch, entered school with tremendous eagerness and aptitude. At the same time, they faced the daunting reality that, in Chicago, they have just a 60% chance of graduating from high school. And I saw the way in which the obstacles brought on by poverty can play a role. Whether it was the inability to afford appropriate school supplies, the lack of access to high-quality pre-school or tutoring services, or having to skip meals once the school day commenced, my students faced a litany of challenges simply based on the circumstances they were born into.
But AmeriCorps taught me that it does not have to be this way. Throughout my two years of service, it was constantly stressed that, despite the seemingly overwhelming realities of poverty, we could do something about it. Through the training and support I received from Teach For America, my students made continuous progress, reaching grade level proficiency in math and literacy at the end of the year. This success was truly a team effort that relied on critical contributions from parents, other teachers, and community partners in addition to myself as teacher.
AmeriCorps showed me that each of us can have notable impact when we take the time to collaborate with others towards a common goal we are passionate about. This led me to pursue a career in public service, ultimately bringing me to the Department of Commerce, where I have the privilege to serve as the Director of the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. My office works to promote economic development and job growth through cross-sector community partnerships, much of which I first learned about through my service with the AmeriCorps program.
I can say without hesitation that AmeriCorps paved the way for the impact I am able to have in my current role. And my story is just one of more than 900,000 made possible through national service. As AmeriCorps turns 20, let us celebrate these contributions while continuing to remember the words of the great public servant Robert F. Kennedy, who said that “few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total; of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”
Joshua Dickson serves as the Director of the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U.S. Department of Commerce.