Professor Jean Freedman
Origin and Purpose
The AmeriCorps Oral History Project was developed by Paul Costello as a way to commemorate and learn from the experiences of the 2020-2021 AmeriCorps Project Change volunteers, particularly in regard to the changes that occurred during the Covid-19 pandemic. Jean Freedman developed the questionnaire and interviewed Paul Costello, 11 of the 15 volunteers, and one faculty member. The questions focused on the volunteers’ work with AmeriCorps, how this work changed during the course of the pandemic, the consequences and challenges of this work, and what lessons can be learned from this experience.
The volunteers worked primarily in the field of education, both in schools and in community organizations. The volunteers spoke frequently about the importance of service and the need for fundamental societal change. The pandemic exposed structural problems such as racism, food insecurity, and unequal access to medical care. The volunteers used their positions as AmeriCorps workers to ameliorate the difficulties that their clients experienced. The volunteers’ resilience and creativity in adapting their jobs to online platforms were particularly impressive.
The volunteers’ passion for service to others was striking. One volunteer said, “I wanted to get involved in something bigger than me.” Another said, “I was called to service.” The volunteers’ jobs included teaching in the classroom and in extracurricular programs, implementing restorative justice programs, mentoring girls, and empowering students through the arts. However, the volunteers were frequently confronted with issues that went beyond their official tasks: students who could not concentrate because of food insecurity or because a family member had lost a job or become ill. Faced with these problems, the volunteers’ immediate response was, “What can I do to help?” They organized food deliveries, translated for students who had difficulties in English, created videos to supplement classroom work, encouraged students to go to college even if their parents hadn’t, and let the students know they had advocates who would fight for them.
Then Covid-19 hit. Teachers, students, and volunteers were suddenly thrust into unfamiliar territory. Programs that had thrived in-person suddenly had to become online. The volunteers immediately rose to the challenge. One volunteer discovered a talent for making videos, which she was able to utilize in a school district on the other side of the country, something that would have been impossible without virtual learning. When faced with the challenges of online learning, one volunteer remarked, “The students are amazing. They mentored each other, without us telling them to do that. If a student couldn’t log on, they just stepped in and said, ‘This is what you do.’” Many found that this concern for one another was mirrored in society at large; as one volunteer put it, “I’m grateful for the fact that we’re looking out for each other a little bit more than I think we were.”
Yet the Covid-19 pandemic also highlighted structural inequalities, such as racism, poverty, and domestic violence. The clients frequently came from vulnerable populations, who bore the brunt of society’s ills. Some students had parents who developed Covid because they worked in essential industries, such as food service and janitorial work. Some parents lost their jobs because of the pandemic and were unable to sufficiently provide for their families. Some students did not have computers sufficient for online learning. As one volunteer put it, “This position has opened my eyes to all of the programmatic obstacles and institutional limitations; this is much bigger than Covid.” While all suffered from the worldwide pandemic, not all suffered equally. The volunteers’ clients frequently did not have the resources needed for essentials such as food and medicine. The volunteers rose to the challenge magnificently – organizing food deliveries, creating innovative educational programs, finding scholarship money for college, translating government forms, and so forth. Yet they recognized that their efforts were not enough.
Catastrophes always allow for the possibility of structural change. Some were optimistic that the pandemic’s highlighting of social problems could lead to their solutions. One volunteer said, “I think most of us have changed for the better.” Another found that the pandemic allowed her to develop talents she might otherwise have overlooked: “I’ve had the opportunity to innovate through problems and challenges.” The volunteers recognized that the status quo was not serving their clients sufficiently, and that change was both possible and necessary. As one volunteer put it, “We need to make a change right now.”
National service programs such as AmeriCorps benefit both the volunteers and the clients. While the benefits to the clients are obvious, the benefits to the volunteers should not be overlooked. National service programs provide the volunteers with educational and work opportunities, put them in contact with people they might otherwise not have met, and allow them to participate in important work, something that extends beyond themselves. While AmeriCorps has provided magnificent results, the needs currently outstrip the resources. If more Americans were involved in programs such as AmeriCorps, we could go a long way toward eliminating evils such as hunger, racism, and poverty. AmeriCorps provides its volunteers and its clients with the tools and the will to make the world a better place. As one volunteer put it, “Now I think anything can be possible.”
Jean Freedman is part of the Project CHANGE faculty. She holds a BA in Dramatic Art from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an MA and Ph.D. in folklore from Indiana University. Her first book, Whistling in the Dark: Memory and Culture in Wartime London, is a study of the interplay between culture and political ideology in London during World War II. Her biography of American folksinger Peggy Seeger, entitled Peggy Seeger: A Life of Music, Love, and Politics, was published by the University of Illinois Press in 2017. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Journal of American Folklore, and other publications.