Strategy 1: Create a Civic Information Corps using the nation’s “service” infrastructure to generate knowledge
Community service and the combination of service with academic study (“service-learning”) have rapidly grown and now represent an important resource for communities’ information needs. This is a positive development that can be used to reconstruct the public sphere; but to do so will require reforming our service programs.
Since the 1980s, civilian service has been institutionalized with funded programs, paid professionals, and rewards. Most importantly, the federal government launched AmeriCorps and the Corporation for National Service (later, the Corporation for National and Community Service) in 1993. There is no single “corps” in AmeriCorps; instead, the Corporation funds intermediaries that include national nonprofits with diverse models and constituencies—City Year and Public Allies are two well-known examples—plus schools, universities, Native American nations, and local nonprofits. Other components of the national service movement that do not receive AmeriCorps funds include YouthBuild, the Peace Corps, and the Corps Network. Meanwhile, some large school districts and universities and one state (Maryland) have enacted service requirements for all their students. Several states and major cities also have official service commissions. High school students perceive a need to volunteer in order to be competitive applicants to college (Friedland & Morimoto, 2005).
Probably as a result of these incentives, opportunities, and requirements, three quarters of high school seniors reported volunteering at least “sometimes” by the year 2003, up from 63 percent in 1975, according to data from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research’s Monitoring the Future study. Eighty percent of incoming college freshmen surveyed by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute reported having volunteered in high school. The Corporation for National and Community Service reports that about 8 million Americans age 16–24 volunteered in 2008 (Corporation for National and Community Service, 2009). These trends received an extra boost in 2009, when Congress passed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which authorizes tripling AmeriCorps to 250,000 annual full-time service positions.
“Service” activities range widely, and some have little connection to knowledge or information. It is not uncommon for the young people involved in service to be bused to a park or an urban street and simply asked to pick up bottles or paint walls. AmeriCorps as a whole does not specify learning outcomes or require intellectually challenging opportunities for youth. Much emphasis is placed on the work performed, e.g., the number of homes weatherized.
On the other hand, certain service projects generate public knowledge to an extraordinary extent. For example:
- 1,500 Bonner Scholars at 24 colleges and universities are all involved in community service and other forms of civic engagement, such as community research. Using a grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service (the Learn and Serve America program), the Bonner Foundation promotes the use of social media tools—such as wikis and videos—by all of its scholars. Methods involve social-media trainings at all of its meetings and conferences, an elaborate online platform for shared work at each campus and nationally, and 10 competitive subgrants to Bonner campuses that do more intensive work with social media. At the heart of the online platform is a wiki site with hundreds of documents on social issues, student projects, tools, and best practices. After receiving the Learn and Serve America grant, Bonner began to plan PolicyOptions, an additional wiki platform for news and policy background information that will enable campuses to establish local, campus-based PolicyOptions Bureaus that are affiliated through a national network, sharing information and a common web platform.
- Cabrini Connections: With funds originally from the Cricket Island Foundation, The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) funded young people in the Cabrini-Green Housing Projects in Chicago to document the full story of their community, which is nationally famous for its murder rate but has many other dimensions. Cabrini Connections today is rich with documentary videos, research reports, and photo essays (www.cabriniconnections.net/mission).
These examples are meant to illustrate two large bodies of activity: one in colleges/universities and the other aimed at teenagers. Although independent evaluations are scarce, these examples (and many like them) seem to be strong on two dimensions: they provide valuable community service in the form of knowledge, and they educate their participants by developing advanced skills, including skills related to information. In essence, they have two functions: creating and distributing public knowledge.
The Knight Commission report, Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age, calls for a “Geek Corps for Local Democracy,” consisting of college graduates who would “help local government officials, librarians, police, teachers, and other community leaders leverage networked technology.” Corps members would educate local partners and also form a national learning network.
That sounds like a good idea, but I would relax two implied limitations. First, I would broaden eligibility well beyond college graduates. Just over half of adults between the ages of 20 and 29 have any college experience at all, and a majority of those do not hold four-year college degrees (Kiesa & Marcelo, 2009). A domestic Geek Corps need not be limited to the quartile that is most successful (or privileged) in conventional ways. Many talented individuals who are not on the college track would benefit from service and might contribute more than college graduates in terms of local knowledge and cultural savvy.
Second, I would not limit their role to merely providing technical support for the nonprofit information technology (IT) infrastructure; I would involve them in creating and disseminating knowledge and culture. The best format might be a new corps. Alternatively, the federal government might provide incentives for various kinds of service groups and organizations to focus on community knowledge. These groups would not be required to focus narrowly on information or communications. If knowledge was an important byproduct of their work, they could join the national learning network, which would be separately funded and staffed.
In practical terms, if you organized after-school service activities for teenagers in, say, Chicago, and you emphasized community-based research, reporting, photo documentation, mapping, archiving local records online or IT support for nonprofits you could qualify as a “community knowledge producer.” You would then be able to send a designee to meetings, apply for training opportunities, log onto a virtual learning network, and apply for specialized grants.
Meanwhile, AmeriCorps as a whole should have learning objectives for all its quarter of a million projected members, and those objectives should include learning to use information for civic purposes.
There is a valid concern that broadening the mandate of the Civic Information Corps might weaken its focus and impact. Much depends on scale. Communication is such an important civic function—and youth have so much to learn and contribute by helping civil society to communicate—that there is a case for a truly ambitious Civic Information Corps that has substantial funding and a large core professional staff. The congressionally approved budget for the Corporation for National and Community Service in FY 2011 is $1.366 billion. If 10 percent were ultimately spent on service projects with elements of communications and information-provision, the total funding would be more than $100 million per year. With that kind of investment, there would be plenty of capacity to broaden the role of the Civic Information Corps as advocated here (i.e., to include all youth and to support cultural as well as technological activities). However, if communications work were actually funded at a much lower level—say, at less than $10 million per year—it might be wise to focus it more narrowly. In that case, I would advocate a focus on non-college-attending 18- to 25-year-olds who are interested in careers in information technology.
A Civic Information Corps would be an experiment. It is impossible to predict its effects in advance, but the objectives would be (1) to raise the civic information skills of the participants themselves, (2) to raise their conventional civic engagement (voting, volunteering and attention to public issues) in a lasting way, and (3) to increase the civic information skills and conventional civic engagement of other Americans by providing communities with substantive, relevant, engaging knowledge.