National Service: Dream World
National Service: Dream World

Chris Daly and Steve Williams detail the problems with Clinton's
National Service Plan.

     You may remember national service -- Bill Clinton gave it a
lot of lip service during the 1992 electoral follies. The premise
of a national service plan was that the federal government would
pay for part of folks' college education in return for that young
person's working in service to his or her country for one year.
Not so bad at first look, my sisters and brothers, but don't
believe the hype.
     Clinton likes national service because it offers him an
opportunity to talk about changing the world. Judging from what
he's done in office, changing the world means little more than
building more jails and making the world a wee bit safer for
transnational capitalism. But national service provides Clinton
with yet another opportunity. If done well, it will draw away
young folks who would otherwise become seasoned organizers
building a movement for human rights and economic justice.
     As young progressives attempting to build a larger movement
to make institutions more accountable to our communities, we need
to figure out how we respond to this threat. What is their
definition of service? Do we try to subvert it? Do we ignore it?
Up to now, most progressives have stayed away from national
service, understanding that it never intended to confront
institutionalized oppression.


     Contrary to the mass media's portrayals, there has been an
explosion over the past ten years in the number of young people
who are engaging society, trying to create a better world. Young
folks have worked to make educational institutions more
responsive to their needs. We have organized to stop police
brutality in our communities. We have worked for universal access
to decent housing and health care. Another face of this work has
been what has come to be called "community service." This is
where national service finds its roots.
     During the early '80s on the campuses of numerous
prestigious, historically Euro-American universities, a trend was
cultivated that sent the students of these schools to fix
"dysfunctional" communities. Students tutored kids, planted
trees, painted playgrounds, among other things. In time, large,
youth-led service organizations were founded. When they were
started, many of these organizations claimed to be apolitical.
Their biggest fear was that they would alienate some do-gooding
Republican!? Over time, those organizations and the their members
began to understand the role that politics played in the work
that they were trying to do.
     This gradual realization happened about the middle of 1992,
when the federal government began to take an interest in national
service. Many adult administrators from the leading schools in
community service were beckoned to D.C. to work with the newly-


established National Service Corporation. In January, 1993 after
Clinton was elected, the federal government announced that in the
coming summer they were going to conduct a Summer of Service for
1,500 participants. Under severe deadlines, the Corporation
consulted people they knew and people they had heard of. Small
community-based organizations were excluded from these planning
discussions; so were the young people who were supposed to
participate in the program. This exclusionary planning process
led to what many participants called a disaster summer.
     Despite the problems of 1993, the Corporation continued on
its original track. This year, they have announced that they will
fund year-round, service projects across the country, and this
summer they will conduct a Summer of Safety -- service for kiddie


     There has been no substantive critique of national service
on a national level. Even career politicians talk about it devoid
of their usual cynicism. Instead, they seem entranced. Commenting
on his perceptions of national service, Secretary of Agriculture
Mike Espy wrote:
     "When young people spend their time together planting a tree
or cleaning out cockroaches from the apartment of a low-income
senior citizen or teaching younger children how to read, they
simply don't have time or the energy to hate each other. Not only
that, with each wipe of their sweaty brows, they look into each
other's eyes and increasingly come to the conclusion that they
are as much alike as they are different."
     The rhetoric of national service claims that by instilling
"an ethic of service," the nation's racial, gender, sexual
orientation and class prejudices are going to simply be wiped
away like sweat. Sentimental language aside, there is absolutely
no analysis of what's going on.
     In 1992, the federal poverty level for a family of three was
$11,570. At the same time, a person working full-time, minimum
wage job earned $8,880 -- before taxes. A service ethic, no
matter how genuine, cannot touch that. Neither can it deal with
the fact that there are 36.9 million people in the U.S. living
below the poverty level. Only a grassroots movement that is
willing to take class, race, gender and basic human rights issues
into account will be able to overturn the institutionalized power
that benefits from seven million people being homeless in this
country. The National Service Plan assumes that the world will be
changed for the better with young folks doing the work that our
schools and landlords should be doing. This is bullshit. The
world won't get better until political institutions are altered.
     National service programs won't challenge political
institutions because they claim to be apolitical. If that were
the case it wouldn't be good, but it's not even true.  The
National Service Program is political. For example, in San
Francisco part of national service will comprise of the National
Civilian Community Corps (NCCC). This program is going to be
housed at a recently closed federal military base. Young people


from around the country will come to San Francisco, live in the
barracks, be issued military-style uniforms and participate in
"the best opportunities of military training with the best kinds
of work and service projects for young people who want to improve
America." The NCCC will be funded by the Defense Department --
those zany folks who brought you the Persian Gulf War and the
Panama Invasion, among other credits. Don't try to tell us that
this is apolitical. National service is not apolitical -- only
politically sanctioned.
     National service did not have to base itself on such an
unrealistic definition. While some folks from a private
university might view patrolling with the police as community
service, a young person of color from a low-income community may
view monitoring that same police officer as community service. In
many communities, especially communities of color, service does
not preclude organizing, activism and politics; instead it wisely
integrates them.  But the government has ignored those
organizations. Young people have developed models that work. It
is important to give them their props because they so rarely get
them, and because we can learn from their successes.
     In the '80s, campuses led the movement for divestment from
South Africa. Colleges that had portions of their endowments
invested in South Africa were forced to remove their funds. In
the process, students challenged the most powerful entities on
their campuses -- their Boards of Trustees; educated their
classmates, faculty, administration, boards; and learned about
     Young activists also took the lead opposing police
brutality. Across the country, young people have attempted to
control the unbridled power that officers wield in these
communities. In Berkeley, an organization named CopWatch was
formed to monitor the activities of police officers with the aid
of video cameras. This tactic of "policing the police" has been
especially powerful at challenging the authority of the police.


     What's so insidious about national service for young
progressives is that it offers us two obvious, yet false choices.
If we ignore the whole thing because it's messed up, we stand to
lose a lot of folks we might have been able to work with. Folks
want to do this work; because many of our organizations are
under-staffed and under-funded too few people are able to do the
work with us and are forced to look elsewhere.
     On the other hand, we can't engage in the process. As ETS-
Atlanta field organizer Holli Levinson said, "The government will
never pay me, or anyone else, to support the efforts to organize
with homeless people. They will set up an institutionalized
system of soup kitchen volunteers and then claim they are
spending their resources to `solve' homelessness."
     The sister is right on point. They've already decided how
they're going to run their show, and their rules are ugly. Their
rules do not permit anything that will fundamentally challenge
institutionalized power. It's straight-up in their legislation


which strictly prohibits "any effort to influence
legislation...organizing protests, petitions, boycotts, or
strikes...assisting, promoting or deterring union
organizing...such other activities as the (National Service)
Corporation may prohibit." If we involve with national service by
their rules, then we've lost.
     And what if an organization breaks these rules? Well, you
can ask the New York organization that received funding for last
summer's national service project. When the Corporation
discovered that this organization, which was made of mostly low-
income and people of color, was doing work that fell out of its
definition of service, they quickly took all of their money back
and left the New York group in a lurch. No apologies. No second
chances. The National Service Corporation bureaucrats just took
back their money.
     National service claims to want to change the world, but it
can't. It doesn't confront institutionalized power.  The real
goal of community service is to make the participants and the
recipients feel good.
     So what are we to do? We need to expand our organizations so
that more folks can get involved. By developing our
organizations, the national service groups will be forced to
respond to us. We also need to keep an eye out for the National
Service Corporation. They'll probably be coming to a town near
you anytime soon. When they do, we've got to make sure that there
are things for other young folks to do other than riding around
with the police arresting homeless people.
     Individually, we've gotta stay strong and stay true to the
game 'cause the system still sucks.