AmeriCorps CEO to lead conversation on national service efforts in Arizona, ASU at town hall
ASU AmeriCorps programs include CoGen Service Academy, Legacy Corps, Survivor Link, Experience Matters, Public Allies Arizona
Michael D. Smith, the eighth CEO of AmeriCorps, a federal agency that advances a wide variety of national and community service projects, will be the featured speaker at a town hall on Arizona State University's Downtown Phoenix campus Monday, March 13, which coincides with AmeriCorps Week, March 12–18.
The town hall is organized by the ASU Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation and will include faculty, staff and stakeholders from across ASU and the larger Arizona community. It will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. Monday in the Concho Room of the Westward Ho, 618 N. Central Ave., Suite 100. The public is invited, but RSVPs are required here.
The event is presented in partnership with the Arizona Governor’s Office on Youth, Faith and Family and the Arizona Governor’s Commission on Service and Volunteerism.
AmeriCorps, known officially as the Corporation for National and Community Service, is “dedicated to improving lives, strengthening communities and fostering civic engagement through service and volunteering,” according to its website.
As it does throughout Arizona, AmeriCorps has a strong presence at ASU through several programs it funds and administers, including:
- Legacy Corps for Veterans and Military Families, based in the School of Public Affairs, which assists veterans and military families.
- VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) through Survivor Link at the Office of Gender-Based Violence in the School of Social Work and through the Lodestar Center in the School of Community Resources and Development.
- Generations Serving Together, a pilot program at Lodestar pairing partners of different generations in particular nonprofit projects in the CoGen Service Academy.
- Experience Matters, a program at Lodestar connecting the skills and talent of individuals age 50 and older with social-benefit organizations to enhance their capacity to solve community problems.
- Public Allies Arizona, a 10-month program at Lodestar that places emerging leaders in paid, full-time internships at partner nonprofit organizations in the community, with the goal of creating a just and equitable society and the diverse leadership to sustain it.
Smith was nominated by President Joe Biden to head AmeriCorps, and was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 2021. Smith has dedicated his career to social justice and public service in underserved communities like those where he grew up. Most recently, he served as executive director of the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance and director of Youth Opportunity Programs at the Obama Foundation. Prior to his government service, he served on the board of directors of Results for America, Venture Philanthropy Partners, Public Allies, Idealist.org and Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement. Smith earned his bachelor’s degree in communications from Marymount University and resides in Springfield, Virginia.
We asked Smith some questions about AmeriCorps and its presence at ASU in advance of his appearance.
Editor's note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Question: AmeriCorps is present in so many communities with thousands of people performing a wide variety of service and volunteer activities. How might a typical American encounter AmeriCorps?
Answer: More than 200,000 AmeriCorps members and AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers serve at nearly 40,000 locations across the country. We are a force multiplier, and you can find us everywhere. Members and volunteers support food banks, local public health systems and schools. Their service addresses issues affecting families, like the opioid epidemic and food security. They also address the impacts of climate change and help veterans and military families access critical support services.
I first encountered AmeriCorps VISTA members and AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers from the Foster Grandparents program as a child at my local Boys and Girls Club in western Massachusetts. My mother was looking for an affordable child care option — but what we found was a second family, adults who cared and invested in my success and a world of opportunity through service. These early experiences sparked for me a lifelong dedication to service, social justice and civic engagement.
AmeriCorps programs offer opportunities for people from all walks of life to serve local organizations and make a difference in communities across America. Service can be a transformative experience — for those who benefit from programs and those who serve. AmeriCorps provides pathways to employment, education, skill building and connection.
AmeriCorps members and AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers can apply to serve with any of our thousands of partner organizations in all 50 states and U.S. territories.
Q: Talk about AmeriCorps at ASU and some of the results that have been achieved here. Why did you decide to highlight the work in Arizona by traveling here?
A: ASU is an invaluable AmeriCorps partner and a true leader in national service. We continue to see innovative programs through ASU that not only address urgent needs but also help those who serve build new skills, expand their networks and consider new paths in education and employment. The Surgeon General has cited a loneliness crisis in our country. The AmeriCorps programs operating in partnership with ASU provide an antidote to loneliness by offering connection, mentorship and friendship.
Programs like Legacy Corps for Veterans and Military Families offer much-needed support to caregivers to reduce stress and enable families to remain integrated in their communities and postpone institutional care. Multiple AmeriCorps programs place members in critical response roles to support survivors of gender-based violence (GBV) in seeking care, safety planning and other resources. GBV is a critical focus of ASU’s Public Health AmeriCorps program, which is helping to build capacity for local public health agencies on issues related to domestic violence, sexual violence and other forms of GBV. RSVP, an AmeriCorps Seniors program, operates out of the Lodestar Center and leverages the power of older adults to assist with transportation needs that support aging in place and independent living.
This is just a fraction of ASU’s impact, and I continue to be inspired by the AmeriCorps members and AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers who serve here.
Q: One area that AmeriCorps at ASU has been active in recently was the establishment of the CoGen Service Academy at the Lodestar Center, as part of the Generations Serving Together initiative. What can different generations teach each other in creating effective nonprofit service efforts?
A: Creating opportunities to bridge generations and bring people of all ages together can play a crucial role in building social cohesion and strengthening a sense of community.
Research from CoGenerate, supported by AmeriCorps Seniors, found that people from different generations do want to serve together; younger people want to be engaged with their elders in the community, and elders want to share their knowledge and experiences with younger people. The number one obstacle is finding readily available opportunities. That’s where AmeriCorps comes in.
Intentional investment in programs like CoGen Service Academy — as well other AmeriCorps Senior programs, like Foster Grandparent Program, RSVP and Senior Companion Program — is needed to ensure that older adults feel valued, are recognized as important members of the community and remain engaged. The mentorship and guidance they can provide to young people is invaluable. And research shows that older Americans who volunteer feel less isolated, experience better health outcomes and are less likely to experience depression.
During school closures from the COVID-19 pandemic, many AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers like Granny Fran in Maine learned new digital skills so they could help their students stay on track. When our school resources were exhausted, Foster Grandparents stepped in to help tutor and mentor students back on track.
Q: Some people say our society today has become less community-focused than in previous years. Please tell about how, from your years of experience in the field, you’ve seen what people in service and volunteering are doing that belies that notion.
A: Of course, our communities have faced challenges in recent years. Most recently, health safety measures during the height of the pandemic led to isolation from our friends, family and social institutions. If we take a step back further, we’ve also seen how social media — which was supposed to bring us together and build collective power — has contributed to increased isolation, polarization and negative impacts on mental health.
In the face of these challenges, service and volunteering offer a pathway to hope — and here there is good news. The latest Volunteering and Civic Life in America research from AmeriCorps and the U.S. Census shows us that between September 2020 and September 2021, some of the most trying and devastating months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans continued to help their neighbors at the same rate as pre-pandemic years. They took care of children, checked in on their older community members and offered to pick up groceries. We continue to see that when the going gets tough, America gets tougher.
Recent challenges also have given us a front-row seat to watch the next generation in action. I think about the days, weeks and months after George Floyd was killed and the way young people ushered in a much-needed conversation about race and justice and pushed for historic policy changes. They continue to show up and demand common sense legislation on gun safety and urgent action on the climate crisis.
While we have some work to do to ensure our social fabric stays strong, I am inspired by the unity, community and ethos of service and action I see in so many ways every day.
Q: People who give of their time to serve others often receive great personal rewards. Please tell of a particular service or volunteering effort you personally were engaged in that you are likely never to forget.
A: As a kid at my local Boys and Girls Club, we were constantly given opportunities to serve our community. I recall volunteering in our community farm share program. I’d come in on select weekend mornings to set up tables, unload boxes and distribute the items alongside the executive director for the club, Carol, who became a mentor and second mom to me.
Most of the folks who came by our tables were older adults. They would tell me what they planned to cook with that week’s haul of artichokes, eggplant or whatever was fresh, and I would ask them questions about their lives, weeks and loved ones. Over time, I got to know many of them well, and it helped to strengthen my connection to the community. When I close my eyes, I can still see the faces of Carol and those older adults and the memories bring me a lot of joy.