By: James C. Kielsmeier, Ph.D., NYLC Founder/ CEO (Ret), and Senior Scholar
On Saturday, March 2, Harris Wofford will be honored at a Memorial Service at Howard University in Washington, D.C., his law school alma mater. Harris died January 21, the national holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
Harris Wofford will be remembered for his pivotal leadership in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s and for the past 60 years, as America’s most important champion of nonmilitary national service and volunteerism. We have Harris to thank for key leadership of the Peace Corps during the Kennedy presidential campaign and Administration. Then without wavering, Wofford continued to build the intellectual, political and organizational leadership foundations for the modern nonmilitary national and community service movement we know today.
In 1979 Harris acknowledged an earlier proposal for the Peace Corps by US Senator Hubert Humphrey (D-MN) in his 1986 biography (Of Kennedys and Kings, 1980) well before JFK embraced the concept. This generosity of sharing credit to advance a greater good distinguishes Harris as a rarity among modern political leaders and helps explain the success of the service movement.
I met Harris in 1989 at the National Governor’s Association annual meeting in Chicago when I was part of Minnesota Governor Rudy Perpich’s delegation charged with exploring how Minnesota could grow volunteer service and service-learning. Harris represented Pennsylvania at the Chicago meetings and shared with me his national vision for civic service. His buoyant personality and shared insights borne of decades of public policy debate and scholarship captured my attention and began three decades of friendship and collaboration.
Harris was both consistent and persistent. In his brief tenure in the US Senate from Pennsylvania (1991-94) he created legislation identifying the Martin Luther King Holiday as a Day of Service. After being defeated for reelection, Harris was appointed by President Clinton to become CEO of the embattled Corporation for National and Community Service / AmeriCorps. Harris quickly built bridges to sympathetic Republican lawmakers including Dave Durenberger (R-MN), a key Republican national service proponent.
Harris Wofford believed that service should be introduced in schools as an effective “on ramp” to full time National Service/AmeriCorps. Service-learning was already well established in many state K-12 and higher education systems across the country in 1995. That year, National Youth Leadership Council (NYLC) worked closely with Harris and the Corporation for National and Community Service and Department of Education Secretary Richard Riley to convene over 500 delegates from 30 states to create a set of core principles linking service-learning with school reform. Again, it was Harris Wofford who was able to build the base of political leadership that allowed National Service to extend beyond its usual boundaries, in this case into K-12 education.
In 2006 Harris was the first recipient of the William James National Service Lifetime Achievement Award collectively presented by a group of twelve national service organizations and President Clinton. Harris barely took a breath before challenging the crowd in Philadelphia to do more – much more to take service further! That’s our charge today. Thank you, Harris, for charting the course and leading!
In Minnesota we continue to feel the impact of Harris Wofford’s vision through the efforts of many allied service groups. Below is a partial list of supportive organizations which collectively along with donors have made Minnesota among the top three volunteer participation states in the nation. Of special encouragement this year has been the interest of Minnesota Governor Tim Walz in volunteer service and service-learning. Like Harris Wofford, Governor knows service and service-learning as a practitioner. He’s been the top non commissioned officer in the Minnesota National Guard and used service-learning practices as a classroom teacher prior to becoming Governor.
The following is a representative sampling of Minnesota organizations engaged in volunteer service:
- ServeMinnesota www.serveminnesota.org is the state coordinator for full time AmeriCorps positions and is currently hiring.
- The Minnesota Senior Corps www.mnseniorcorps.org is part of AmeriCorps and offers a wide range of volunteer opportunities for older people statewide.
- Lead advocate for Minnesota Higher Education Service-learning is Minnesota Campus Compact www.mncampuscompact.org
- National Youth Leadership Council www.nylca non profit organization started at the University of Minnesota in 1983 and continues to primarily support research and technical assistance for K-12 service-learning.
- The Center for School Change www.centerforschoolchange.org is an advocacy, policy and training hub for service-learning and positive youth development with a significant track record.
- Youthprise, a nonprofit takes on issues of equity and justice head on often using a service-learning approach. https://youthprise.org
- Of course, the number of faith-based and civic organizations with opportunities for service is extensive. www.handsontwinCcties.org is a good place to start looking.
At this writing we have learned that the Federal funding base for National Service in Minnesota and nationally is threatened with extinction by the Trump Administration.
More information to follow next week on how proponents can respond.