My Day on Capitol Hill (or Mr. Berry Goes to Washington)
Today’s guest blog comes from William Berry, an AmeriCorps alum of City Year (2010-2011) and Notre Dame Mission Volunteers (2011-2012). After two years of teaching English in Japan, he is back in the United States and working as a Strategy and Development Fellow with AmeriCorps Alums at Points of Light’s D.C. office. During evenings, he takes classes in Educational Policy at American University through a City Year partnership and searches for ways to bring about much-needed paradigm shifts in public education. As a Mississippi native, he particularly enjoyed writing this blog entry and reconnecting with his Southern roots.
My participation in City Year was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. As I’ve gotten older, I have come to see just how rare it is for people from a wide variety of socioeconomic, racial and cultural backgrounds to work together towards a common goal as equals. I have spent the rest of my working career trying to replicate this type of environment, and I count myself as forever in City Year’s debt as I shape my life in the vast, scary “real world.” That is why I was so excited when I heard Voices for National Service was recruiting AmeriCorps alumni in the D.C. area to advocate for national service on Capitol Hill. Here it was! I finally had a chance to give back to the program that had given so much to me!
I signed up and was assigned to Team Arkansas, the state where I did my AmeriCorps service. My team would meet with a staff member of Representative Tom Cotton’s office, Representative Steve Womack, and Senator John Boozman. The actual day of advocacy started chaotically as I learned that the first step in being an effective advocate is navigating D.C. to get where you need to be. On my way to Capitol Hill, a taxi driver chided me for being a healthy, fit young man and needing a ride from Union Station to the Capitol building. I told him that I had a meeting to attend, but he would not budge and told me I would be better off walking. I trusted his instincts—wrongly, I later learned. I arrived too late and was unable to attend the meeting with Congressman Cotton’s office. After sending an apologetic text to our team leader, I did not want to be late to the next meeting and was determined to be waiting for my team in Congressman Womack’s office when they arrived. Eventually, my team arrived, and Congressman Womack himself invited us into his central office.
In meetings with both Congressman Womack, and then again later with Senator Boozman, I genuinely appreciated their honesty and sincerity in talking about the value of national service to communities and the country. Both meetings were as intellectually stimulating as I hoped they would be. Sometimes we discussed the amount of resources Congress could afford to allocate to national service while at other times we all shared our personal stories. In both meetings, I appreciated how both the Congressman and Senator emphasized that these meetings were forums in which each voice was important.
Despite this, it was extremely intimidating for me to speak with such accomplished people. Eventually, I overcame my fears and became more relaxed as time went on. We enjoyed a few playful moments together as well. I particularly remember one funny moment from the last meeting. Senator Boozman told us to “give yourselves a pat on the back” for our work, and he reached over and patted me on the back. I was at a complete loss of words and thought “a Senator just patted me on the back.” I didn’t know how to respond, so I reached over and patted him on the back as well! What else could I have done?
It was truly a day to remember, and the experience left me with interesting questions concerning the role of national service in the wider community and how I can advocate for service as an AmeriCorps alum. What sort of long term goals do we have in the national service community? How do alums like me “sell” the concept of national service in a skeptical social and political environment? Is national service a luxury that can only be enjoyed in times of economic excess, or a movement worthy of investment at the highest level of political office? These are the questions we should ask ourselves as we press forward.
I do truly believe that the answers to these questions do not fall into static “yes/no,” “right/wrong” binaries but instead are entirely dynamic. Whether national service is ultimately deemed as a luxury or a necessity depends entirely on the degree to which we advocate for national service and share our stories with our elected leaders. We have a good—indeed, a great—story to tell, and it is our responsibility to make sure all of our elected officials hear it and are able to tell us what they think of it.
That’s why I encourage you to visit Voices for National Service and sign up for their enewsletter or follow them on social media. They provide up-to-date information on national service funding and legislation, and as I learned, it is easy to get connected to their special events, like Capitol Hill Day.