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Idealism, Skepticism Mark Kickoff Of Community-Service Initiative

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OAKLAND, CALIF.--Teachers at Emerson Elementary School here cheered as volunteers painted murals, built a puppet theater, made stage backdrops for school productions, and catalogued materials in the library, which has no librarian due to budget cuts.

"We need all the help we can get,'' said one teacher. "This country has just given up on its urban schools.''

"This is a gravy train, and it's only coming by once,'' the teacher added as he asked a project organizer to leave behind any leftover paint.

The volunteers were among 1,500 youths from 10 cities and one rural area who gathered in San Francisco last month to kick off the "summer of service''--the first step in the Clinton Administration's plan for a national-service program.

The young people came to the Bay Area for a week of training for the summer-long initiative, which will send them into low-income communities to improve conditions for disadvantaged children through tutoring, immunization outreach, and repair of schools and other community facilities. They will work on 16 projects funded by the Commission on National and Community Service.

The $8 million effort is also intended to demonstrate the benefits of federally sponsored community service, which President Clinton wants to expand into a $7 billion, year-round program.

"We said, 'Let's get a building block going, so we can show the potential of national service and educate people across the country,''' explained Jennifer Eplett Reilly, the director of the summer program.

Legislation to create a new service program appears to be on a fast track in Congress, although lawmakers are unlikely to provide as much funding as the Administration has requested. (See Education Week, June 23, 1993.)

Participants in the program, who will receive the minimum wage and $1,000 for education or job training, displayed the youthful energy and idealism that will be necessary to make the larger initiative a success. They spoke earnestly about their desire to make a difference and to prove that their generation is not apathetic.

"I want to change my community; I want to change my world,'' said Wascar Guerrero, a 19-year-old from Brooklyn, N.Y., as he took a break from painting the walls of the Martin Luther King Youth Services Center in Berkeley. "If I can affect one person, and they can affect another person, it keeps going.''

Idealism and Skepticism

Still, that enthusiasm was tempered by skepticism about the government's motives and dissatisfaction with the training program. In addition, racial tension apparently marred the experience for some.

The participants were chosen by community groups that run the local projects they will participate in. Although sponsors were instructed to seek youths who expressed a long-term interest in service and to aim for a diverse cultural mix, they also were told that 85 percent of participants should hail from the target communities. As a result, the group that assembled in San Francisco was predominantly African American and Hispanic.

Racial issues came to dominate conversation by the end of the week, with black and Hispanic students spontaneously meeting in separate caucuses.

Participants agreed that there had been racial tension, while disagreeing over how serious those tensions had been. They noted that some sessions designed to confront cultural differences erupted in heated arguments that left a few participants in tears.

"I think it was pretty traumatic for some people,'' said Brian Simmons, a black student from New Orleans.

When Eli Segal, the director of the White House office of community service, addressed the group, he got an earful from some black youths.

Toya Lillard, who spoke on behalf of a group from Harlem, complained that while the volunteers were predominantly "people of color,'' minority groups had "little or no representation at the decisionmaking level.'' She also criticized "poorly handled approaches to issues of diversity.''

"This will not prepare participants for effective service in communities that are predominantly people of color,'' Ms. Lillard said.

Even so, nearly all participants interviewed said they had learned a lot from their compatriots. And interracial mingling appeared to be the norm.

A Learning Experience

Richard Pang, a recent college graduate from affluent Livingston, N.J., admitted he had been "a little bit scared'' about the prospect of roaming impoverished areas of Newark in an effort to bring health care to children.

"I am learning a lot from the people who live in these communities,'' Mr. Pang said."I understand why they are so angry, what's behind it. I understand their trust has been broken.''

The participants diverged in their assessments of the community projects they worked on during the meeting. Some, particularly those assigned clean-up duties, complained that they were performing meaningless, menial labor. Participants said some volunteers assigned to clean up a public park simply walked off the job.

Ms. Lillard challenged "the notion of service for service's sake, exemplified by picking up trash.''

"We demand meaningful service that empowers the individual and the community,'' she told the meeting.

Others said they felt they were doing valuable work, and were touched by the gratitude of residents.

Many participants suggested that the $600,000 spent on the training conference should have been used instead to help needy communities.

Many also said they thought the Administration had set up the event primarily as a public-relations stunt. When Vice President Gore came to address the conference, several participants noted, organizers carefully gathered a racially diverse group to stand behind him when he spoke.

But most also acknowledged that that aspect of the event was probably inevitable.

A Publicity Stunt?

"It feels like a big show to get publicity, to get ahead politically,'' said Gabriel Dominguez, a 23-year-old student at East Los Angeles Community College. "But people have to see there's something going on so they will be motivated to get involved.''

There were also programmatic complaints, ranging from predictable grumbling about the food and accommodations at the Treasure Island Naval Base--where volunteers stayed in barracks that lacked hot water--to more substantive criticisms.

The curriculum was designed to encourage participants "to start thinking of themselves as leaders,'' Ms. Reilly said.

"We want to create something that will spur change not just this summer, but for the long term,'' she said. "I see each of these young people as seeds.''

But many participants said the program lacked focus and did not teach them skills that will be applicable to the projects they will undertake this summer. Some also complained about the rigidity of the schedule, and a few groups boycotted planned classes to discuss their particular projects.

"A lot of this stuff is of rather dubious value,'' said Sunnia Ko, a 20-year-old student at the University of California at Los Angeles. "It's the other people here that I am learning from.''

Some participants also derided the hortatory speeches and the exercises meant to teach group cooperation, such as those in which teams worked together to climb imaginary electrified fences or complete joint maneuvers while blindfolded.

Despite the criticisms, though, the youths said they were optimistic about the projects they would work on this summer and about the prospect of a diverse group coming together for a good cause.

"I didn't get much out of the activities, but the interaction, I loved every minute of that,'' Mr. Simmons said.

"I don't know what they were trying to achieve here, and I don't think they envisioned what happened,'' he said. "But something did happen, and I think it was a success.''

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