THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY ELI SEGAL
3:05 P.M. EST
MR. SEGAL: Good afternoon. As you just heard from the President, today marks the 10th time Americans celebrate a national holiday to honor the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. Today is also the first time, and it's what brings us here today, that Dr. King is going to be remembered through organized action and service.
Last summer, in August, the President signed into law the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday and Service Act, a bipartisan, congressional encouragement to all Americans to commemorate the King holiday by serving in their communities. Today, Americans all over our country are doing this. They are doing -- they are not taking a day off, putting a day on.
In his Saturday radio address, the President urged all Americans to act, and he's going to continue to mention this theme today, both in Denver, as you already heard, and later in the day, in Los Angeles. He's also going to honor again, as he did in Denver, and he will again in Los Angeles, members of AmeriCorps, our new domestic Peace Corps.
I spent the morning today with AmeriCorps rehabilitating a homeless shelter here in the District of Columbia; and all over the United States today, AmeriCorps were busy. In Atlanta, 350 of them in the home of Martin Luther King, all over Georgia, completed two days of activities which included an intensive building project that gave a local elementary school 10 new classroom reading lofts. In Oregon, members of AmeriCorps' EnviroCorps are making an empty urban lot on the city's King Boulevard into a brand new garden. And in Arizona, members of AmeriCorps' NCCC are at work turning a block of distressed housing into what they are going to call "Dream Street".
These are important, my friends. They are one-day activities, bringing AmeriCorps members together with community members. But even more important, AmeriCorps members are getting things done every day. That's what makes AmeriCorps so valuable, so different, and so special.
Each of us in this room, probably, helps when we can. We help on weekends; we help on holidays. But the work of rebuilding our communities must get done every day. And AmeriCorps members are doing it across our country. They're saving babies already in South Texas; they're raising reading scores in Seattle; they're walking the NYPD police beat in Brooklyn and keeping kids out of gangs in Killeen, Texas. They're making real homes in Roxbury, Massachusetts, and they're making better parents in Auburn, Mississippi.
We're joined today by several people -- leaders of two of the best AmeriCorps programs -- Allen Khazei, the founder of City Year; and Vanessa Kirsch, founder of Public Allies; and by three of the AmeriCorps members who joined with me today in making D.C. just a little bit safer and a little bit better today at the homeless shelter -- Tamea Greene, Lavalle Stokes, and Doreen Nobert.
But before they tell you briefly what their AmeriCorps programs are getting done each and every day, let me say a word about a piece that appeared in Newsweek this week. For those of you who saw it, Joe Klein praised AmeriCorps as, in his words, "perhaps the most creative, indeed, virtuous role government can play". Mr. Klein said the AmeriCorps members, who he called, "altruistic", "energetic" and "exemplary", were vital resources to charities all over the country.
That's what AmeriCorps is -- not a new government bureaucracy, not an unfunded mandate, but a locally driven effort that enables patriotic Americans to give a hand to their communities, get a hand in exchange paying for college, and showing all of us what's best in America. It's new -- launched just this September, four months ago -- and it's the fulfillment of a major campaign commitment that President Clinton made during his campaign. And even more important than that, it's already working.
The Executive Director of the National Association of Police Organizations calls AmeriCorps "a huge boost in the arm for law enforcement". FEMA's Richard Krim says AmeriCorps members have already, literally, helped thousands of disaster victims pick up the pieces of their lives. And Habitat for Humanities' Jerry Bass says, "We could not do this job without them".
Now, I read in Mr. Klein's column a quote from Speaker Gingrich that wasn't as complimentary. I like better what Congressman Gingrich said when our bill became before the House in 1993. Then Congressman Gingrich said, "In many ways I like this bill very much. I like its spirit of trying to reach out for service. I like its effort to be decentralized and to have local involvement. I like the degree to which it emphasizes for young people a sense of idealism." And I think you could make a very good case that the Clinton Administration and the Democratic leadership in the House has worked to fashion a bipartisan bill, and many Republicans, I think, will end up voting for the bill, as in fact they did.
We didn't get the Speaker's vote in 1993, but he was right then, both about AmeriCorps and about Republican colleagues' support of it. Now, I invite the Speaker to see the results of the work of the Congress just a year and half ago, to come with me to visit AmeriCorps programs in action -- as I've written him today --to see a program which costs the American taxpayer less than one-tenth of one penny of every federal taxpayer dollar. He's going to be as impressed as I was, as I have been, as I've travelled across the country. AmeriCorps programs renew America just the way he's been talking about with citizens solving problems from the grass roots up.
And if I may, let's hear from some of those citizens briefly now. First, I'm going to ask Allen Khazei of City Year to talk briefly about what AmeriCorps has done for City Year and what he sees as national service going forward.
MR. KHAZEI: Thank you, Eli. It's a real pleasure to be here today. I just want to say a word about what City Year is, and the importance of Martin Luther King Day to us, and the importance of national service to completing Martin Luther King's dream.
First, a word about City Year. The idea behind City Year is really captured in its name. What we're saying to young people, ages 17 to 23, just like you have an opportunity to spend a junior year or senior year, we want to challenge you and give you the opportunity to spend a City Year, a year when the streets of the city, when the communities can be your classroom, and when homeless shelters and public schools, and public parks and playgrounds, can be your textbooks. And you can learn by doing.
What we're trying to do with the support of AmeriCorps is show that this ethic of service, of spending a city year or spending a year in service really should become just part of growing up in America, just like we expect young people to go to school, to have a year in service.
We were launched in 1988 entirely with private sector funds. We were named a national demonstration program by the Bush administration and were able to grow our program in Boston. With the leadership of AmeriCorps, we've been able to expand our program in Boston and really turn City Year into a national corps, launching brand new programs this fall in Providence, Rhode Island; Columbia, South Carolina; Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; and San Jose, and plans for further growth are in the works.
In addition, what AmeriCorps has enabled us to do is leverage private support. We've been able to leverage support from the Timberland Company, from Reebok, from Digital, from NationsBank, Bank of Boston, some of the leading private sector institutions in our society. And that support -- that leadership support from AmeriCorps has really been critical to take something that works and spread it across the country.
For us, Martin Luther King Day is extremely special because what we are trying to do is use service a meeting place to build common ground. We unite young adults from every background imaginable. They're African-American, Asian, Caucasian and Latino. Some have dropped out of school and are working on getting their GED, which is a mandatory part of our program; others have graduated from college. They're from the inner city and the suburbs. They're working class, middle class and upper income. They are every background imaginable. And what brings them together is the idea of service -- of serving their country. So for us, what we try to do every day, is live up to the spirit of Martin Luther King Day.
Today, in particular, we are holding "I Have a Dream" kid's fairs in all the cities where City Year operates. We're bringing together hundreds of kids, giving them an opportunity to learn about Martin Luther King and talk about Martin Luther King's dream. And I think what we've learned through City Year is that, really, national service can be the next step in the civil rights movement; that it really can help complete the civil rights movement.
Then in the 60's, through citizen action and partnership with the government, we ended discrimination under law. But you can't legislate away racism; you can't legislate away ignorance; you can't just legislate away fear and understanding. You need to do something. You need to bring people together.
And for us, that's what service is all about. It's uniting to build that common ground. We've seen it work through working with AmeriCorps and we're excited to continue that effort.
MR. SEGAL: And now I'd like to have brief remarks from Vanessa Kirsch, the founder of Public Allies, a program launched here in D.C. a couple of years ago now, and I believe four or five cities in the United States. Vanessa.
MS. KIRSCH: Thank you very much. It's exciting to be here on Martin Luther King's birthday. Public Allies is a network of local efforts in Wilmington, Delaware; Milwaukee; Durham, North Carolina; D.C.; and Chicago to develop young people as problemsolvers in their communities.
This year, over 100 young people -- what we call Allies -- are working in schools, police departments, community development corporations and in teen centers. They are working 40, sometimes 60 hours a week to improve their communities in very concrete ways.
Each Ally has an amazing story in themselves. What they've accomplished in just the four months is truly amazing. They are mentors and role models; they are organizing volunteers in their community organizations; they are working on hotlines; doing service learning projects in schools. They are working to do book drives in libraries and doing immunization projects in community health programs.
Yesterday, in honor of Martin Luther King's birthday, the Allies joined with other AmeriCorps programs, including Teach For America and the D.C. Service Corps to renovate and paint murals at the Barnard Elementary School here in D.C. When I asked one of the participants what it meant to be doing this work on Martin Luther King's birthday, she said, "He would be proud to see young people from all different races and backgrounds working together, shoulder to shoulder, improving their communities."
And this is the dream that I get to see every day in my work, and I feel truly lucky because I see the magic of what young people can do when they can realize their dreams. I see the magic when young people's energy and idealism is put to good work, when they take responsibility and help to solve some of the problems in their neighborhoods. These young people in these AmeriCorps programs are developing the leadership and job skills they need to play an important role in changing their community.
What AmeriCorps has done for Public Allies is to help to offer these opportunities to more young people across the country and expand our programs to new cities. But more importantly, it has helped to spread the magic, the very special work that they're doing and involvement in their communities to lots of young people across the county.
MR. SEGAL: Three AmeriCorps members who are going to chat just briefly with you are from all over the United States and are working together out of our NCCC headquarters in Aberdeen, Maryland. These three AmeriCorps come from diverse backgrounds, but they are doing extraordinary work in rebuilding their country.
First, I'd like Tamia Greene to say a few words to us.
MS. GREENE: Hi. Today I just wanted to speak on how valuable my experience in NCCC has been as far as being able to meet people from so many diverse backgrounds and put my hands to work on so many new experiences, so many different projects.
Right now, today, I planned and organized a project with the Community For Creative Nonviolence, which is the largest homeless shelter in this country with 42 volunteers, half of them being NCCC members from Aberdeen, and some being Hill staffers and other AmeriCorps staff members, working and rehabilitating, helping to rehabilitate CCNV for people to live in. And that was a wonderful thing, because I chose to do community service for a year every day. That's what I've given my life to every day.
But yet and still, a lot of people wish they could do community service like we could, but they can't. So they come in with us on days like today on projects like we have today. And I think that's the valuable thing that AmeriCorps can offer to our country because it takes dedication and it takes commitment. And the problems that we have aren't going to be fixed overnight, and it takes the energy and enthusiasm of young people to do that. So, thank you.
MR. SEGAL: Tamia said that not all people can do AmeriCorps, and I think she's right. This first year we're very proud of the fact that we are going to have 20,000 people in AmeriCorps, but more than 200,000 people have indicated an interest to participate in this. This is a program which is going to represent the best of America.
To tell us a little bit more about AmeriCorps, we're going to have Doreen Nobert say a few words. Doreen.
MS. NOBERT: Thank you. Just to speak on my experience with AmeriCorps, and specifically, the NCCC, it's allowed me to fulfill my commitment to community service. It's allowed me to do a full year, which I certainly would not have been able to do. I've come here; I've committed a year. And what it means is that every day I go out, rain or shine, to do the service.
MR. SEGAL: The last comes from Lavalle Stokes, who, I believe, is from Pennsylvania, Philadelphia?
MR. STOKES: New Jersey.
MR. SEGAL: I've got it wrong. It was good try. Lavalle Stokes also is doing some extraordinary work for you. Hopefully, he'll have a chance to discuss it with you now.
MR. STOKES: Well, all I would like to say is that I've been grateful and glad that I've been given the opportunity to do community service, and right now, with the Maryland Public School System, teaching kids, first grade through fifth grade; mentoring; teaching them how to read, one-to-one; and just working with the teachers because I see this is really needed. And, what can I say? I enjoy it. I like what I do.
MR. SEGAL: One last thing before we ask for any questions you might have. I told the President a few weeks ago that I think he has given me the single, best job in the federal government.
I have an opportunity to see these young people every single day as I travel around the United States. And when I said that to the President, his response was, "This is my signature program. This means as much to me as anything else for which I ran for President of the United States and for which I now serve the American people. This is a program that I am going to fight for, today, tomorrow and forever."
You heard him today allude to that in his speech in Denver. I believe as we go forward, we are going to see the President make a commitment over and over again to AmeriCorps, not because it's a government program, but because it encapsulates all the values that are important to him.
Certainly, it's about educational opportunity, and young people will, in fact, be given an opportunity to go to college in exchange for a year's worth of service. But it's about building communities and strengthening a sense of individual responsibility. We think all of that is encapsulated in what AmeriCorps is.
We believe we are going to do some wonderful things in America in the course of this year, and, in the process, transform the young people and the people young-in-spirit who are serving.
We believe we will have substantial support from the Congress as we did earlier in 1993 when 26 Republican members of the Congress and seven Republican Senators joined with us in a true bipartisan effort. We can look to many, many governors of the United States right now of both political parties who are extraordinarily supportive of national service.
We believe that while this is the first year, and it still may be a program, it is going to grow into being an institution that we're all going to be proud of.
So I welcome any comments that you might have on this Martin Luther King Day as we move forward and build national service.
Q What do you think made the Speaker change his mind from the quote you read to the quote he's saying now, "gimmickry, totally, unequivocally opposed to national service".
MR. SEGAL: Well, we think we're going to have to wait and see. We think that a lot of the themes that Mr. Gingrich struck at his inaugural remarks when he became the Speaker are things that we are comfortable with. You might remember he spoke very positively about Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Franklin Delano Roosevelt talked -- his administration was very much about national service. You might remember the Civilian Conservation Corps.
We certainly are going to make sure that Mr. Gingrich is fully aware of what we mean by national service, that this is not a new government program. We believe that there are many people close to the Speaker who will also be there to tell the Speaker that this is a special program, that this is not a new government bureaucracy, that this really is not an unfunded mandate; this is a funded nonmandate.
We'll make that case, and, hopefully, the Speaker will see that this is something that is completely consistent with his view of volunteerism in America. We're looking forward to engaging in that.
Q The Speaker said this morning that AmeriCorps is a federally bureaucratic system that is an anathema to volunteerism. How would you respond to that statement, and could you describe a little bit of how AmeriCorps is actually administered -- the staff here and the local groups?
MR. SEGAL: My vision of AmeriCorps is that you will not know much about us federal bureaucrats. There are very few. We were very proud of the relationship between the number of people who are, in fact, working in what we call "AmeriCorps" and the number of Americorps out there. We believe that we're going to be able to make the case, the people behind me is what AmeriCorps is and not Washington, D.C.
This is not -- and let me make it clear -- a new federal government bureaucracy. This is not a new unfunded mandate. No state needs to participate in this program. If they participate, we give them substantially all the funds they need. They need to develop private partnerships, local nonprofit organizations and corporations and foundations and individual citizens to help support these programs.
But this about what local communities need. This is class grass-roots, up-from-the-bottom programs. We don't do anything more than choose among programs that come to us with how they believe they're going to solve the problems of America, whether they're problems of immunization or community policing, et cetera.
Let me also say that we do not believe that this is going to be the panacea for the ills of America. We're wise enough to know that the problems of crime and illiteracy and disease and pollution far predates AmeriCorps. We will not solve those problems, but we will make a difference -- not because of the government bureaucracy here, but because the young people who will be engaged in national service in conjunction with their partners in the local communities -- private partners, I should add; organizations like the YMCA and Habitat for Humanity -- are going to make the difference.
Look at us more as an investment banking house investing in local communities and investing in AmeriCorps and not a new government bureaucracy.
Q What is the budget for this year?
MR. SEGAL: In fiscal 1994, the budget was $370 million; in fiscal 1995 for AmeriCorps was about $590 million. It is a very, very small program. We believe it will have an extraordinary multiplier effect in the communities of America.
Q Eli, you obviously wasted no time in attacking Speaker Gingrich's comments, or responding to Speaker Gingrich's comments. What are you going to continue to do in the days and weeks ahead to try to persuade Gingrich that this is a worthwhile program? And if he, using his new majority, manages to zero it out, what are you going to do?
MR. SEGAL: First of all, I'd like to distribute to you before we're done today the letter that I have sent to the Speaker to indicate what we're really looking for. We don't see this as confrontation.
I think the President of the United States said today that national service is absolutely essential to him. It's why he ran for President, and why, in fact, he has served. This program went through with extraordinary bipartisan support.
I honestly believe that when Mr. Gingrich sees the way this program works, not in terms of budget numbers, but see how it works in America; see how it works in Marietta, Georgia; see how it works; see how the program that he's so proud of -- he's so proud of Habitat for Humanity, he's actually wearing a button on Habitat for Humanity. Habitat for Humanity will say to all of us that it works much, much better when it's working in conjunction with AmeriCorps.
We are absolutely committed to working with the Speaker, letting him understand that this is something that is far bigger than a government program.
Q Will part of that effort to make him understand what your actually doing -- are you inviting him to come along with you on some of these stops to see what you do?
MR. SEGAL: Yes, I am. As I said a few moments ago, that I thank the President for giving me the best job in the federal government. I think if you go out and you see the AmeriCorps members -- and more than that, talk to the programs there and ask these private organizations like Habitat whether they value this, and whether they value this enough -- universally, after only four months in operation, we can already see that we are already achieving our objective which was that we're getting things done in the communities of America.
Q But I mean, specifically, are you inviting him at a certain date and time to see a certain program?
MR. SEGAL: Well, I think we'll wait to see what his reaction is, but we can easily -- there are 350 AmeriCorps programs, all in place since September of 1994. We would hope that he will have the time, and we will be happy to visit any of the programs with him -- hoping to receive a response from him and that in fact we can come visit some together.
Q Here's a man who apparently isn't open to that. You quoted him as being very favorable to the program. Now he seems to have shut the door on funding for AmeriCorps. What makes you think that he's going to have a change of heart?
MR. SEGAL: Because I'm a true believer in this program, and I think that he has many, many responsibilities. But I think that if he believes in the principle of volunteerism, and if he believes the principle of bottom-up, locally-based programs that focus on local solutions to local needs, I think he is going to see when he understands this program a little bit better, that this is exactly what he has in mind.
This is the kind of delivery system that we think works. In fact, one of our Republican sponsors, Congressman Steve Gunderson, of Wisconsin, in describing national service, described it as a Democratic idea with a Republican delivery system. We think its decentralized nature will appeal to the Speaker, and more than that, is what I think we need to deliver a program that's going to work.
Q How do you answer his charge that this is coerced volunteerism?
MR. SEGAL: I'm not sure I understand why he calls this coerced volunteerism. States don't need to participate in this program. They are free to choose to be in it or not to be in it. Nonprofit organizations, private organizations are not forced to participate in this program. And young people are not forced to participate in this program. This is a pure voluntary program.
There may be a debate down the road, as there was when there was a draft, about whether we want the draft to be mandatory or not, but that is not what AmeriCorps is now. AmeriCorps is not gimmickry.
AmeriCorps is about young people having an opportunity to serve in their community because they choose to serve in their community, not because they're coerced to serve in their community.
Q How many states do participate?
MR. SEGAL: I'm sorry.
Q How many states do?
MR. SEGAL: The only states that are not participating at this time are North Dakota and South Dakota. Every other state is participating, and we have reason to believe that at least some of those states that are not will participate as we go forward.
Because they don't participate does not mean that people in those states cannot serve as AmeriCorps, it's just that there are some limitations on how active those states can be.
Q As the President goes through his own budget priorities and makes cuts to meet his own deficit goals, do you expect he'll ask for full funding for this program, or expanding it from where it is now, or what?
MR. SEGAL: I think he made it clear today, and, obviously, I can't speak for the budget process completely, but I think he made it clear today that this is something that he's going to really fight very hard for. I believe he will fight for full funding for this program. We'll obviously have to wait and see.
I think his real objective, stated on many occasions in the course of three years, he expects there to be a total of 100,000 people serving as AmeriCorps members. We think that will require funding. The funding that we're requesting is consistent with achieving that 100,000 objective.
Q What is the projected '96 number, fiscal '96?
MR. SEGAL: I think the fiscal '96 number we're just going to have to wait on a little bit until the President's budget is released, but it will be a number large enough so that 100,000 AmeriCorps will have served after the first year -- after the first three years.
Let me clarify -- 20,000 AmeriCorps serving this year; fiscal '94, 33,000 AmeriCorps will be serving, in fact, have been budgeted for; funds have been appropriated for the 33,000 for fiscal '95; and, therefore, that would mean we would expect somewhere in the neighborhood of 47,000 AmeriCorps would serve in the third year to reach the 100,000.
Q So you're talking about a large budget increase. If $590 million for fiscal '95 for 33,000, you're talking about a third increase almost, so you're talking about $700, $750 million?
MR. SEGAL: We're talking about a budget increase, but I'll report again -- remind you again, that the total number of funds for AmeriCorps accounts for one-tenth or one-twentieth of one penny of one federal dollar. We think it's the kind of investment that the American people will tolerate -- not only tolerate, but will ultimately delight in.
Q Is your first indication of Gingrich's change of heart what appeared in Newsweek magazine today?
MR. SEGAL: I think the answer is yes. I'm going to continue to believe that over time that the Speaker is going to say, fine, that this is a program that he will support with enthusiasm, but I think we have some education work to do.
I think we know that support for AmeriCorps is very broad. We just have to deepen it as much as possible.
Thanks very much.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 3:33 P.M. EST