President Returns To His Roots With National Service Act

President Obama signed a $5.7 billion bill last week aimed at strengthening community service throughout the country. The National Service Act calls for Americans to give back to their communities through volunteerism. Deepak Bhargava, of the Center for Community Change, explains the potential impact of the legislation.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now as we examine President Obama's call for Americans to give back to their communities, he signed into law the $5.7 billion National Service Act last week. The Act triples the size of the AmeriCorps Service program. Joining me now to talk about what that could mean for volunteerism all around the country - or service, I think we should say, is Deepak Bhargava. He is the executive director for the Center for Community Change. It's a grassroots organization that does exactly what the name implies. It tries to help people in low-income communities organize to make things better. He is also here with me. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. DEEPAK BHARGAVA (Executive Director, Center for Community Change): Good morning.

MARTIN: I want to play a short clip from when the president signed the Act into law last week.

President BARACK OBAMA: I've told this story before. When I moved to Chicago more than two decades ago to become a community organizer, I wasn't sure what was waiting for me there, but I'd always been inspired by the stories of the civil rights movement and President Kennedy's call to service and I knew why I want to do my part to advance the cause of justice and equality.

MARTIN: See nice to hear the president even has to stumble every now and again. But Mr. Bhargava what about you? Why did you get involved in community service, in community organizing?

Mr. BHARGAVA: Yeah, well I grew up in the Bronx, not too far from Yankee Stadium. And I grew up in a neighborhood that was low income, mostly of color -African-American, Latino. And as I grew up I got increasingly angry that people in this community didn't have access to good schools, to adequate healthcare -and I decided that instead of making a lot of money, I wanted to do something about it.

MARTIN: What will this bill do?

Mr. BHARGAVA: This bill will create hundreds of thousands of paid opportunities for young people, and really people of all ages, to give back to their communities, to help people find healthcare, to help people get a better education, to help with energy efficiency in homes. So it's the largest expansion, probably in United States history, of government support for helping people serve their communities.

MARTIN: I think people - there are some people who make the same argument about paying people to do community service who also have an argument about paying people to do, say mission work, for example. They say isn't there something fundamentally at odds with paying people, particularly having a governmental entity pay people to do something that should be driven out of a sense of ethics or altruism, or something transcendent? What do you say to that?

Mr. BHARGAVA: I think no one has to worry that the people participating in these programs are going to get rich quick. Community service is hard work. It is long work. It is not ever going to be rewarding, but what this legislation does…

MARTIN: You mean financially rewarding?

Mr. BHARGAVA: Financially rewarding, exactly. What this legislation does do is it enables people who may not be able to afford to do this for free. It says to them, we're going to make a deal with you that if you're willing to serve, we're going to help you with your education. We are going to enable you to make a living. And that's enabling everyone in a democracy to participate, so I think that's a great spirit in which to…

MARTIN: Do you find the criticism elitist in a way?

Mr. BHARGAVA: Yeah I think it presumes that everybody has got Ivy League degree, and lots of trust funds, and they can go off and save the world when there are lots of working class and poor people who want to give back and they need to be supported to do that too.

MARTIN: But what about the politics of them? I mean, how do you keep the politics out of it? I think that one of the arguments that people have often made about even Legal Service Corporation, which provides low-cost legal services for people, which is part of our constitutional obligation. People are constitutionally supposed to have access to legal services. They are supposed to be able to be defended within the system and this is the way to do that, but there are those who make the argument that you can't keep the politics out of it - that inevitably this is some kind of reflection of somebody's sort of political value system or somebody's political understanding of what is to be done, of what is a priority. What do you say to that?

Mr. BHARGAVA: Well, I do think the truth is that people serving in poor communities, helping with education and healthcare and basic services, over time does make people more engaged, more passionate, more caring. But legislation itself is not gonna support political activity of any kind, but it is true that people who have this experience will be changed for their whole lives, whether they stick in community service or not.

MARTIN: But the part of the argument for keeping the government out of it is that the way that they are changed, it then becomes not a matter of public concern. That if its a private matter, if it's private entities supporting that kind of transformative experience then that's the responsibility of the private relationship with those entities. And when the government gets involved, then all taxpayers have a stake in what that change is.

Mr. BHARGAVA: Well, I think all what we should think about is, conservatives have typically decried big government - government can't solve every problem. Liberals have tended to look to government to solve every problem. This, in my view, is a different way of going about it. It says there is a role for government but the role for government is to support voluntary initiative by organized citizens to make things better in their communities. And that is not primarily a political enterprise. That is primarily a community and democracy-building enterprise. Our society or civic health is stronger as a result of hundreds of thousands of people doing this work.

MARTIN: Give me a sense of what kind of work they will be doing. What kind of work they are already doing and what kind of work they will be doing.

Mr. BHARGAVA: Everything from teaching kids in primary schools, secondary school; helping to retrofit homes in low income communities, so that they are more energy efficient; helping people sign up for Medicaid or other, or SCHIP, to get their kids insured and vaccinated and healthy - basic social infrastructure in the poorest communities in the country.

MARTIN: What about the skill level, I mean, community service often obviously attracts people of very different backgrounds, which is as you pointed out, that's something that is to be desired. It shouldn't be only people with a certain background have the opportunity to be of service. But how do you - how do you - how are you to ensure that the skill level is appropriate to the task?

Mr. BHARGAVA: Well, the truth is the way this legislation is structured there are opportunities across the board, for people who are coming back to the work force as older adults who have got a lot to contribute, there's separate track for them. For people who are just coming out of college and want to give back and don't have a lot of work experience. So there will be paths available to every kind of person to give back in a way that's appropriate.

The thing that I think is interesting about this, Michel, is that it's really a change in culture that's being developed by this legislation so as - you know in the 80s and 90s it was how rich could you get if you were a young kid coming out of college, how much money could you make, and if this is successful, it will say we are going to measure you by how much you give back. And we are going to support you and we're going to help you. We are going to really value that as a society. That's the exciting thing to me about this.

MARTIN: Well you actually have that Harvard degree, so you're one of those people that - people we were talking about. You actually could have, you know, gone on Wall Street or do something else. What was the most transformative experience you had? What was your favorite thing that you've done as a community organizer as it were?

Mr. BHARGAVA: Yeah well, the best part is always seeing people find their own voice. So instead of complaining about the Mayor at City Hall, actually seeing people in the neighborhood figure out, well, what is it we want to do in this public housing development or in this neighborhood and how do we advocate for ourselves, develop a plan, go down to City Hall, engage with decision makers and seeing people figure out that they really have the power and the ideas and the vision inside to make a different reality on the outside. That's the fundamental exciting thing about community work organizing.

MARTIN: What I think I hear you saying, in a way it's like kind of a hybrid between the emphasis on personal responsibility and government responsibility. It's encouraging the individual to take that responsibility for ensuring an outcome that he or she would like to see in concert with others. Is that how you see it?

Mr. BHARGAVA: It is. It's a - it's a very American tradition, you know, most countries don't have this huge voluntary sector that we have in the United States. And what it's about is saying people together in a community -individuals working together can make enormous change. That is, in essence, the precondition for having a well-functioning democracy, elections that work and so on is these local organizations. It is this individual and community initiative.

MARTIN: Deepak Bhargava is the executive director of the Center for Community Change. It's a grassroots organization that helps people change their communities for the better. He was kind enough to join us from our Washington D.C. studios. Thank you so much.

Mr. BHARGAVA: Thanks Michel.

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