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P.C. corps.

Standing before a hand-painted banner of a huge glowing sun and sliding easily into the talk-show format that has become his trademark, President Clinton was in his element as he addressed the hundreds of college-age students who had just completed the "Summer of Service," his first national service initiative. Mutual congratulations and youthful optimism filled the air. "We could revolutionize our country. There are no problems we cannot solve, there is no future we cannot have," he told them to wild cheers.

National service for youth is at the heart of Clinton's vision of a revitalized America and a new Democratic Party, and it is on the verge of becoming a reality. In August, Congress obliged the President by enacting the National Service Act of 1993, which will provide scholarships to students who perform community service. The effusive bipartisan rhetoric that surrounded the legislation's passage conjured up images of a youthful army marching into poor communities to vaccinate children and clean streets. But the reality of national service may turn out to be something quite different. If the Summer of Service is any indication, national service under Clinton will be short on civic responsibility and actual service, long on racial politics and therapeutic self-esteem training, and hard on the taxpayer's pocketbook.

The Summer of Service (Sos), a ten-week program that ran from mid-June to mid-August, gave 1,400 students from around the country $1,000 education vouchers in return for working eight-hour days at a subsistance wage on community projects. While substantially smaller than the National Service Act - which will give 100,000 participants school vouchers worth close to $10,000 in return for two years of service (participants are also eligible for child care, health care, and salary supplements from private matching funds) - the SoS was billed by the Clinton administration as a prototype for the more ambitious endeavor.

That is a real cause for concern. The Commission on National and Community Service, which ran SoS and will become a corporation and administer the National Service Act, placed diversity high on its list of criteria for groups applying for SoS funds. Applicants were expected to recruit participants from "diverse racial, economic and educational backgrounds." The students ultimately chosen for SoS, however, were anything but a portrait of America. According to Jennifer Eblett Reilly, the national director of the Summer of Service, about 75 percent of the participants in SoS were minority - 42 percent African-American, 15 percent Latino, 13 percent Asian, and 4 percent Native American. Further, although the Commission itself doesn't have figures on socio-economic background, interviews with numerous people involved with the program suggest that a sizeable majority of participants came from low-income families in our inner cities.

Most SoS staffers argue that high minority participation was necessary to win the trust of the largely minority communities that SoS participants were to serve. But ironically, and perhaps predictably, the Commission's zealous effort to breed harmony through inclusion had almost the opposite effect. Before SoS began, the participants were flown in from around the country to Treasure Island near San Francisco for one week of pre-service training. According to attendees, who asked not to be named, the gathering quickly balkanized. Ethnic groups formed separate cliques and then squared off against their hosts. One "facilitator" recalls the chill that went up her spine when she heard a voice call out over the loudspeaker, "All African-Americans please assemble now." Hispanic and gay, lesbian, and bisexual participants also held separate meetings to discuss how the SoS wasn't meeting their particular needs. The fiasco culminated at a forum on the final day, which was attended by Eli Segal, the director of the White House Office of National Service. The newly formed African-American caucus issued a list of demands, including that the leadership of the Commission have more minorities (Catherine Milton, who is executive director of the Commission, and Segal are white).

Even more worrisome than the Commission's notion of racial diversity is its determination to turn over as much of the program as possible to at-risk youth. Interviews with several of the program coordinators revealed a great disdain for "traditional" measures of leadership, like good grades or participation in school activities. Instead, community groups were told that in evaluating "non college-bound youth" they were to look for "leadership potential" and "diversity in accomplishment" (i.e. students who fall short of formal standards). Program coordinators brag about recruiting former gang members, drug dealers, and unwed teenage mothers. Seth Goldman, who directed 50 SoS members in tutoring projects this summer, proudly explains that his "best tutor was convicted of an adult felony for possession of a sawed-off shotgun."

Why boast about bringing along former felons? The answer lies in the persistent belief among SoS program directors that former criminals make the best role models because they "can relate to kids." Since over half of the SoS programs involved tutoring and education, you'd think academic performance might figure as an appropriate standard to judge participants. However, like most of her colleagues. Debbie Stephens, the assistant director of Building Up L.A., one of the 16 partnerships, doesn't see it that way. She says that because her participants traffic in very basic levels of information it is easy enough for everyone to stay ahead of the younger children being taught.

All of which give SoS the appearance of a jobs program with a special emphasis on therapy. Reilly appears her description of the program with the Hillary-esque catchword of "meaningfulness" and admits that SoS had two fundamental goals: national service and providing an "opportunity" for kids from bad neighborhoods to get jobs and to learn "self-esteem." She argues, however, that the two goals are not at odds with each other and should be complementary: What better way for kids to learn self-worth and self-discipline than from working on a project to help their community?

But most SoS programs were not content to let "self-esteem" grow from service alone. Many of the programs had their volunteers take daily breaks for gab sessions to share their experiences in the field and scheduled time for team-building exercises like group calisthenics. Emphasis was placed on what the SoS corps members were feeling. But in all the warm talk about growing and learning, one does not often hear words like "duty" "responsibility," or "obligation." There is little sense that this program met what one might call the JFK standard: A participant should consider what he's giving to the country before asking what benefit accrues to him.

The question of sacrifice might be moot if the SoS workers unambiguously met genuine community needs. Many projects funded by SoS, however, were less related to pressing social need than to educational and political priorities that few would associate with national service. One project provided training in political advocacy. The Harlem [N.Y.] Freedom Schools - privately-funded, open admissions summer schools-hired 50 people with SoS money and taught them how to lobby, mount letter-writing campaigns, and use the media. Other projects included mural painting, cultural awareness lectures, diversity sensitivity sessions, and putting on carnivals to entertain kids who might be prone to join gangs. Nichole Gonzaque, a team leader in South Central Los Angeles, and her colleagues brought self-esteem training to L.A.'s public elementary schools. "Some of these kids never even heard of self-esteem," she says, aghast. And the Commission gave $30,000 dollars to the St. Louis Hollywood Youth Corps to pay its members while they made videos about their community.

The Commission not only accepted programs of checkered quality, it also allowed participants to wander from their assigned tasks and design their own service projects. For example, 10 SoS participants who were supposed to help refurbish a garden with the non-profit Newark [New Jersey] Conservancy became disenchanted with the project once they discovered how much manual labor was involved. With permission from the umbrella group supervising their project, the SoSers decided they would rather teach environmentalism in the schools. They chose three topics - biodiversity, "land pollution," and global warming - and then "educated" themselves about them and designed presentations, all in the course of two weeks. Rondeep Kaur, the team leader, was unfazed by her group's basic lack of education in these relatively complex areas. Nor was she unsure about the impending environmental devastation that the children were helping to prevent. "We just taught them to respect plants and animals like we respect other people because we all share this planet together," she explains.

The Commission on National and Public Service might believe such ad hoc environmentalism worthwhile, but President Clinton invokes a different ideal when asks all Americans to assume the responsibility of service. We can only hope that the National Service program itself will be truer to the rhetoric than its misdirected prototype.
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Title Annotation:Clinton's national service program
Author:Kaufman, Leslie
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Oct 1, 1993
Words:1461
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