Notes from the Field—‘I make America.’
I’ve written here on a few occasions of the great bipartisan history in Iowa related to National Service. Republicans and Democrats in the state have, with very few exceptions, recognized the role members of AmeriCorps and Senior Corps have played in Iowa.
This history connected with the present here in Iowa last week, around a visit by Wendy Spencer, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service. We had the pleasure of hosting her for a full day of community and Congressional events, culminating in the induction of the new AmeriCorps*NCCC FEMA Corps.
The morning began with a FEMA Corps briefing for Democratic Congressman Leonard Boswell, a highly decorated Viet Nam veteran and Dean of the House delegation, and moved quickly into another briefing with Congressman Tom Latham, a senior Republican appropriator, and a local AmeriCorps site visit, with Rep. Latham as well as (Republican) Governor Terry Branstad.
In a rare political twist, Congressman Boswell and Congressman Latham are opponents for next month’s election. This is a hard-fought and competitive race. A substantial amount of money is coming into this state and the next weeks are very likely to be very rough.
It’s worth recognizing, however, that in the middle of such a strenuous campaign, these Members have consistently taken time (and hard votes,) to put partisan politics aside and come down strongly on the side of national service.
As Members of the National Service Caucus in the House, Boswell and Latham have supported AmeriCorps and Senior Corps consistently. They have given their time, their attention, and their work to help strengthen national service. They have earned the respect and appreciation of us all.
In addition to the example of Congressmen Latham and Boswell, it’s worth noting that Governor Terry Branstad, since his earliest days in office, has been a strong supporter, for literally thirty years. As Governor through the 80s and 90s, he presided over the expansion of the Governor’s Office on Volunteerism and opened the first state service commission in our history. He worked with then-Governor Bill Clinton and President George H.W. Bush to tie national service to expanded educational opportunities.
When he returned to office in 2011, he found that his successors as Governor - Tom Vilsack and Chet Culver (both Democrats) had continued to work toward making national service a part of our state’s culture. For disclosure’s sake, I spent three years working directly for Governor Culver. I will always remember getting the call from as levees broke during the floods of 2008 -- “Let’s send as many AmeriCorps members as we can to help” - four years later, there are still AmeriCorps members working to rebuild Iowa.
And that leads us to the FEMA Corps. FEMA Corps is housed in Vinton, IA, at the site of the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps, “NCCC,” campus, and is a new initiative in disaster relief and recovery. Disaster recovery is nothing new to the Vinton campus. The campus was activated in the summer of 2008, and days later, our storms hit. To that, at the request of Governor Culver and Senator Tom Harkin, a full 50% of Corps members were assigned to Iowa recovery in the first year of the campuses history.
The members saved lives and provided a clear example as to how national service and disaster relief are joined. Senator Harkin came to the induction, to keynote the ceremony, and to swear in the members with Wendy. For some context, Senator Harkin is responsible for all matters relating to NCCC and the Corporation for National and Community Service. But to be clear, this is a very small part of the federal budget. His personal involvement in NCCC is evidence as to his view on the importance of national service, and that was reflected in this visit.
Senator Harkin spent three hours on campus for this event - he literally spent hours meeting corps members and families on his way out. Speaking for myself as a former Harkin aide, I could see the difficulty his staff had in getting him out of there at all - because getting him out on time ceased to be an option very early on.
During his keynote, he spoke of his Dad - a member of the WPA in the 30’s - he spoke of his own time as a Navy pilot; he recognized the corps for its work in disability inclusion (Harkin authored the Americans with Disabilities Act.)
But maybe the most poignant moment came at the very end of his speech. He told an often repeated story about a teacher. He talked about the teacher, upon being asked, “what do you make?,” in the story, the teacher says, “I make kids smile. I make kids read. I make kids work hard and I make them wonder and I make a difference.”
Harkin then looked up from his notes, and said,
“When someone asks you what you make, you tell them, ‘I make America.’”
Wow. Just wow.
Thanks to Wendy Spencer, Rep. Leonard Boswell, Rep. Tom Latham, Gov. Terry Branstad and Sen. Tom Harkin. And thank you to the members of the Senior Corps and AmeriCorps in Iowa. You make Iowa and you make America.