Michael D. Smith, CEO of AmeriCorps
AmeriCorps should reflect people from all walks of life in the communities we serve: AmeriCorps CEO Michael D. Smith
Michael D. Smith took the helm of AmeriCorps in January, bringing to the federal agency expertise and leadership skills honed during a career dedicated to social justice and public service. Below, he shares with City Year his vision for AmeriCorps, his experience seeing the power of AmeriCorps in action at a young age, the importance of national service to our democracy, and how City Year and other nonprofits are working throughout the pandemic to address educational inequities and help students succeed.
CY: Under your leadership, what do you want AmeriCorps to be known for?
In my first few months in office, I am still learning and listening. But three themes have emerged for how I plan to prioritize my time as a leader of this agency, thanks to what I’ve heard from so many. First, ensuring Americans see the critical importance and impact of national service to our democracy. It’s important that in this moment that AmeriCorps is not just seen as a thousand flowers blooming, but we are able to show how the country has changed because of AmeriCorps. Second, AmeriCorps and national service must reflect the diversity of our country and the communities we serve. While working side-by-side with local leaders, AmeriCorps should reflect people from all walks of life in the communities in which we serve. Now is the time to eradicate the barriers that can make national service seem like a luxury or privilege. We need to make sure every American who wants to serve, is serving, or being served, sees themselves as a part of our national service family and is inspired and enabled to serve their communities or across the country. Finally, I think we have an opportunity right now where AmeriCorps can play a meaningful role in bringing people together during one of the most difficult times in our nation’s history. I’ve seen people from completely different backgrounds, who you would never expect to meet, let alone work together, serve side by side and build meaningful relationships. I truly believe that a shared commitment to service can break down the greatest barriers.
CY: What personal experiences drew you to national service work?
I was born to teen parents in an underserved Black neighborhood in Springfield, MA. We did not have a lot of money, but we had love in excess and a village that nurtured and guided me from day one. Beyond my church, the center of that village was the Family Center Boys & Girls Clubs. I was a member since elementary school. My mother sent me there for cheap day care but little did she know that she’d give her son a second family; a crew of mentors, coaches and advocates; and an insatiable appetite for community service and civic engagement. They read with us, took us camping, taught us about Black pride and social justice, and gave us the opportunity to serve and care for our community when we were still little kids. It was at my Boys & Girls Club that I first met AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers and AmeriCorps members, along with all kinds of volunteers. And, it was at my Boys & Girls Club where they gave us the opportunity to serve—food programs, peer health counseling, supporting the preschoolers and so much more. They taught us no matter how young you are, and no matter how much money your parents have, you still have an awesome responsibility and privilege to give back.
Student success looks different based on community and need... Programs like City Year and others in this space are constantly studying and expanding their methods to give schools stronger tools for student success.
CY: What opportunities do you see to expand the role of student success coaches?
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused extensive disruption in our nation’s schools. Collaborating with AmeriCorps team members can help school districts address the impacts of the pandemic, from supporting physical health and safety to assisting with school-based supports so students get back on track. While AmeriCorps members do not take the place of school staff members or positions, they can help school-based staff stay focused on their core job responsibilities by supporting or taking on non-core responsibilities to help staff provide critical services to students. For example, AmeriCorps members may do some of the additional work that the pandemic has required of schools, whether contact tracing, or supporting COVID-19 testing efforts. AmeriCorps can help promote equity by supporting students who have been the most underserved or hit the hardest by the pandemic. AmeriCorps service can also inspire volunteers to become educators, including in the schools where they serve.
In his state of the union address, President [Joe] Biden called on Americans to care for our youth and get our students back on track. AmeriCorps members have answered this call both by serving during extraordinary times and organizing others in service.
Student success looks different based on community and need. Disruptions in routines and relationships during the pandemic led to affected social isolation, anxiety and learning loss. Programs like City Year and others in this space are constantly studying and expanding their methods to give schools stronger tools for student success. AmeriCorps Seniors’ volunteers in the Foster Grandparent Program provide critical support to students and teachers as volunteer supports systems for academic, social and behavioral health of students. And other programs like Public Health AmeriCorps provide health and wellness coaching to students in rural and underserved communities. The role of these mentors, coaches and educators is critical as we recover and thrive. And I echo President Biden’s State of the Union address call to service. It’s imperative to youth success that Americans take on service roles as tutors and mentors.
CY: City Year AmeriCorps members coming from different backgrounds learn to work together as a team toward a common goal. Why is an experience like that important?
AmeriCorps programs unite people from diverse backgrounds, build skills, create more robust educational and career pathways, and more. For decades, AmeriCorps has played a meaningful role in bringing people together across differences from all walks of life. There’s something powerful about service… about rolling up our sleeves together to respond to disaster, help children stay in school and on track, improve the health outcomes of underserved communities … that allows us to see each other’s humanity. That build[s] bridges. That creates bonds that strengthen communities and lead to lasting change. This is what AmeriCorps is, and we can play an even more central role to overcome polarization and division.
CY: Through their full-time service, City Year AmeriCorps members bring critical additional capacity to schools. How do you think this helps to address educational inequities or advance social justice?
The pandemic has shone a light on the inequities in our educational system, particularly in the ways learning loss disproportionately affected lower-income and underserved communities. Programs like City Year, Relay Graduate School of Education Teaching Residency and Urban Teachers don’t just add bodies to schools that lack staff. They use evidence-based interventions to address inequality by strengthening pathways to education and employment. Service can take us from charity to justice. I talk a lot about this path where we see AmeriCorps members who may have started off serving with Teach for America. Or, City Year. Or, Reading Corps. Or, College Advising Corps. Or, any one of the hundreds of education programs supported by national service. And then, just a couple years later they’ve decided to devote their life to education. Starting their path by addressing immediate, pressing needs and then becoming strong leaders in the education system. I’m very excited to witness that evolution, and the data is showing that that transformation happens more than we realize with a high percentage of AmeriCorps members serving in schools continuing careers in the education sector – from educators to administrators.
AmeriCorps can help promote equity by supporting students who have been the most underserved or hit the hardest by the pandemic. AmeriCorps service can also inspire volunteers to become educators, including in the schools where they serve.
CY: During your career, you’ve helped to expand mentorship opportunities. Being a mentor also is a big part of the role played by City Year AmeriCorps members in historically under-resourced schools. Why is having a mentor at school valuable to students?
[Ahead of national mentoring month in January,] President Biden said “by standing on the shoulders of mentors, young people have led America forward at each inflection point in our history.” Mentorship gives students, particularly underserved students, access to opportunity. It is a powerful social, emotional and educational asset for any young person.
A survey by MENTOR’s report, The Mentoring Effect, which is the most comprehensive look at young people’s views on and engagement with mentoring, found:
- At a time when much of the focus is on what divides us, mentoring clearly unites us. Americans are overwhelmingly crossing racial, economic, and other bridges to mentor young people outside their families.
- Adults view mentoring as a strategy to make communities healthier and more connected, while also addressing many causes of inequality. Two-thirds of adults consider it highly important for young people to have mentors, and this same population estimates that only a quarter of youth have the mentors they need.
- Regardless of whether they are mentoring, most Americans are extremely supportive of mentoring young people outside their families and feel that both the government and private sector should invest more in mentoring. Nearly nine in 10 feel that more mentoring is needed in our country—with more than eight in 10 supporting the use of government funds to grow mentoring opportunities, especially when charitable support is absent.
CY: Last year’s American Rescue Plan Act included $1 billion to stabilize and expand national service programs in the wake of the pandemic. How is that investment helping communities?
The American Rescue Plan allowed us to take the Biden-[Vice President Kamala] Harris administration’s goals and strengthen the work of our programs across the nation. I am very excited about Public Health AmeriCorps, a historic partnership that AmeriCorps and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched to respond to the pandemic and train the next generation of public health leaders. This year alone, we will add 3,000 new AmeriCorps members to the nation’s public health workforce. This $400 million commitment will help transform communities now and for years to come.
In addition, AmeriCorps State and National increased living allowances for members and expanded existing programs to meet increased needs. AmeriCorps VISTA also added 1,000+ new Summer Associate positions during the Summer of May 2021. It expanded programming efforts on the critical needs facing communities, including public health, food insecurity and learning loss. And AmeriCorps Seniors provided vaccinations, vaccine education, and summer learning loss and enrichment programs for the nation’s students and funded nearly 5,000 opportunities for older adults to serve. And we will continue to invest in the American Rescue Plan funds through 2024.