Michael D. Smith, CEO of AmeriCorps, is no stranger to public service. He credits the local chapter of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America for keeping him out of trouble and teaching him the value of community service when he was young. Appointed by President Biden and approved by the Senate, Smith took over as the eighth CEO of AmeriCorps in December 2021.
AmeriCorps is the federal agency focused on national service and volunteerism. Formerly known as the “Corporation for National and Community Service” (CNCS), it was recently re-branded to better reflect its mission. The agency was created to replicate the success of the Peace Corps, by providing citizens with a way to serve their country through domestic volunteer programs and civic engagement.
Recently Mr. Smith met via Zoom with Chet Cooper of ABILITY Magazine to share the AmeriCorps mission and elaborate on Public Health AmeriCorps, a new program developed in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) after the success of the AmeriCorps interventions and outreach during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chet Cooper: You’re relatively new to being CEO of AmeriCorps, can you tell us about your background?
Michael D. Smith: Sure. For this job, I think the most important thing to know is that I was born to teenaged parents and grew up in an under-served community in western Massachusetts. But the local Boys and Girls Club had my back and introduced me to service early on. That experience opened my eyes to so many possibilities which was so important for a kid like me. So, this work that I do at AmeriCorps is deeply personal.
Prior to joining the team here, I worked for President Obama for almost eight years. I was part of the team that created his My Brother’s Keeper initiative. I became director of that initiative in the White House and Special Assistant to the President. Then I worked at the Obama Foundation, a Chicago-based non-profit created by the 44th President, where I lead efforts related to youth opportunity.
I also worked here at AmeriCorps (then known as CNCS) as a political appointee in the Obama administration running the Social Innovation Fund, which was a program helping to bring resources to evidence-based organizations that were making a real difference in low-income communities.
Cooper: Great background. I’m a little confused, though, I don’t hear a Massachusetts accent.
Smith: (laughs) There is a small radius around Boston that has that really great accent, but as you start moving out west, it doesn’t hang on.
Cooper: Right. I grew up in New Jersey, and I know what you mean about the accent. There are different sections that have different accents. I don’t think I have an accent it’s been so many years.
Smith: I can hear it! I can do a good “paark yer car in Haarvaard Yaard.”
Smith: I can do the accent, but it’s not natural. (laughs)
Cooper: (laughs) That was really good! I was trying to do some homework on AmeriCorps but was having a problem searching Corporation for National Community Service. I always thought that was a strange name. I think that “corporation,” threw people off. Especially those who didn’t know about the service. So, I’m delighted to know the name has been changed.
Smith: At the end of the last administration the brand was officially changed to AmeriCorps. Our staff and field people were grateful for the name change. Because outside of DC, no one had any idea what the Corporation for National Service was. It would lead to questions like, “You’re a corporation? What’s your business?” So, AmeriCorps is what the agency is most known for, and it’s our largest program. Like the Peace Corps, we are now just AmeriCorps.
Cooper: I guess people aren’t typing in Corporation for National Community Service much in their search engine anyway.
Smith: (laughs) No, no, they aren’t. I guess our branding exercise is working. (laughs)
Cooper: Tell me about what you’re doing connected to the CDC?
Smith: Sure. Today, we have about 250,000 AmeriCorps members and AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers who are serving in about 40,000 locations across the country. The great thing about AmeriCorps is that any nonprofit, any city government can apply to us for help. They might say, “We have this great idea on how we can use the power of national service in a corps kind of way to make a difference on a challenge.” And AmeriCorps responds to those needs.
We’ve got 65,000 AmeriCorps members in schools, 15,000 AmeriCorps members working on climate, folks who are doing a lot of work around food insecurity. You name it, if there’s a challenge in a community, AmeriCorps members are likely doing something about it.
Coming out of COVID, AmeriCorps members across the country were doing quite a bit of work to respond to the disproportionate way the pandemic affected underserved communities. I think we touched about 12 million people during the pandemic in all sorts of different ways. So, the CDC came to us and said, “You know, we like what we’re seeing here. We can see how AmeriCorps members are having a real impact on all sorts of public health issues, whether it’s the mundane, like managing the testing and vaccination lines, or the really transformative work as goodwill ambassadors helping to encourage folks to get vaccinated and breaking through some of the stigma that might exist.” The CDC said, “Is there a way we can team up to ensure we do more to meet urgent healthcare needs, and also build bridges for individuals into public health careers?”
So, we came together and launched Public Health AmeriCorps, which is a $400 million, five-year program in which we are looking to move thousands of AmeriCorps members to work on public health in communities across the country.
Cooper: I watched the PSA that you have. Like you just said, the Public Health AmeriCorps program is going beyond just volunteering. It’s also introducing people in underserved communities to the health care environment and providing them with resources to maybe move them into public health careers. Great idea. Where does it stand now? Where do you see it going in the future?
Smith: We are in the early stages. We did our first round of funding. We now have about 82 grantees. Local communities apply to us and tell us where members are needed most. So, we now have about 82 non-profits, local governments etc. that received grant funding. Those grantees are actively recruiting and training members.
I just attended a swearing-in ceremony of a program that’s launching in Baltimore with BaltimoreCorps. I was in Milwaukee at a community health center that launched a program with AmeriCorps grant funds. We’re in the early stage right now, getting the members on board, and they’re just starting to get their training and getting to work.
Cooper: Who’s doing the training? Where does the curriculum come from?
Smith: It is a mix. AmeriCorps knows how to put folks to work in a corps model to make a difference, so we’re doing a lot of the training in that area. The CDC is doing the bulk of the training, to create pathways into public health careers. They’re setting that up right now. And then there’s quite a bit of training being done by the local partner. In some cases, folks are working on substance abuse. Some are working on mental health. some are working on various other aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Baltimore we have some who are interested in going into nursing and supporting hospitals and some that are doing Certified Nursing Assistant (CAN) training. So many of the organizations on the ground are using their expertise for that kind of training. We want to make sure our Public Health AmeriCorps members are prepared for the jobs they’re working for.
Cooper: I guess the number of grant recipients will grow in the coming years. But do all of the current 82 recipient organizations get the same funding package? Is it modified according to the local organization, where they think their needs are greatest?
Smith: The experience is designed to be hyper-local. It will probably look different in Oakland than it does in Baltimore. But the call to action is the same for everyone. All Public Health AmeriCorps members receive a stipend. They all receive the Eli Segal Education Award that they can use to pay off loans, pay for college or other secondary education. They all receive training.
They all receive help with their pathway, because we are very deliberate and up front that this will not just be a one-off experience. If we have anything to say about it, this will lead you into a career in public health. So, they all get that training as well. Each individual experience might be different based on the community, the kind of job they’re doing, etc. But the overarching benefits and goals will be the same.
Cooper: Is there an age limit for AmeriCorps members?
Smith: No! AmeriCorps members can range from 18 to 80+! I just recently met someone who was 82 years old in Maine. But the vast majority of folks who are filling these AmeriCorps slots are in that 18-26-year-old range. Or some high school or college age members join during a gap year between high school and college or right after college. But we have 150,000 AmeriCorps Seniors members and volunteers who are doing foster grandparents and senior companions and our retired seniors volunteer program. So, our members’ ages run the gamut. When I was in Baltimore, I was really, really excited to see a great range of age diversity.
Cooper: You mentioned that part of AmeriCorps’s package is connected to education. What happens with the seniors in that realm?
Smith: It depends on what program they enroll in. AmeriCorps runs four major programs. We have AmeriCorps State and National, which are corps programs usually doing a minimum of about 500 hours of service every year all the way up to 1,700 hours of service a year. Those are programs that you might be familiar with: Public Allies, Reading Partners, those sorts of corps that are doing specific projects.
We have AmeriCorps NCCC, which stands for the National Civilian Community Corps, and has its roots in FDR’s CCC. That is a residential learning and service program where we deploy teams to respond to all sorts of urgent issues. Right now, we have NCCC teams in Puerto Rico and Florida, in Missouri, where there was flooding. In any given year, members go to six or seven different placements. For four to six weeks, you might be helping to build a house, then for your next placement you might be running a COVID testing and vaccination line at a hospital.
We also have our AmeriCorps VISTA program, which goes back to the Johnson administration. Those are AmeriCorps members who are working with nonprofits and city governments, helping to build capacity for poverty-related programs.
Our AmeriCorps Senior program is made up of foster grandparents, which are low-income mostly women working in early childhood settings. We have our Senior Companions program, which is senior helping seniors to stay healthy and engaged, and we have our Retired Seniors Volunteer program, which includes many different volunteer experiences. In this program, seniors decide where they want to volunteer.
If they want to be a member of Reading Partners and you’re 55 years old and you’ve decided you’re done working the job you were doing and you instead want to go work in schools, you can do that. Or you can decide, “I want to be a foster grandparent. I want to be—” and that’s a means-tested program— “I want to work with little kids. I want to be that extra support for them.” So, depending on the program you decide, that depends on the types of benefits. Reading Partners, for instance, if you’re an AmeriCorps State and National member, you can get that award. Foster grandparents, for instance, don’t get an education award, because we know that that is geared more specifically to seniors who don’t need it.
Cooper: And there are stipends for all of them?
Smith: Yeah. The stipends vary. The foster grandparents and senior companions are not full-service experiences, so their stipends are intended to provide just a little extra cash in their pockets. Our State and National, NCCC and VISTA members get a little bit more because they often have to house and feed themselves while doing what looks like a full-time job of service.
Cooper: The organization is doing so much, and there are so many levels to it. In your position as CEO is there anything that stands out to you from your new vantage point?
Smith: I love that AmeriCorps is whatever a community needs. I love that about us. I can visit a town and we could have two AmeriCorps members helping a local church with their community gardening program. Or we could have a cadre of AmeriCorps members running all sorts of important programs for youth and seniors in partnership with their city.
AmeriCorps really takes on the character and the needs of the local community, and I love that rich diversity. I also love that we can turn on a dime. During the pandemic, all of a sudden, people asked me what happened to AmeriCorps members during the pandemic? Nothing happened to them. We were there. We stayed in communities. When teachers had to learn how to do their work remotely, AmeriCorps members had to do it as well. When a local community center had to decide, “Will we create a learning pod for the children of frontline workers?” AmeriCorps members were right there alongside them. I just love being able to watch how diverse, how local, how responsive the work is on the ground in communities across the countries in 40,000 locations.
I would say, often your strengths are also your challenges. The diversity of AmeriCorps makes it challenging for people to understand what it is. Because the agency is not one thing; it is hundreds of things, depending on the need. From a branding perspective, it is sometime hard getting people to support our recruitment efforts and to grasp what AmeriCorps is, what it looks like—because it looks like so many different things.
Cooper: Did you know Harris Wofford?
Smith: Of course. I’ve been in this space for a long time. You could not do this work without knowing Harris and admiring and loving and respecting Harris. But when I was at the Case Foundation, Harris was a senior fellow. So, I got to kind of be at the knew of Harris in some really interesting ways. When he left that senior fellowship, I took his office.
Cooper: Oh, that’s great!
Smith: Harris and I stayed in touch up until he passed.
Cooper: I first met Harris through our partnership with Millard Fuller, did you ever meet Millard?
Smith: Who started Habitat for Humanity?
Smith: I don’t know if we ever met, but of course I know of him.
Cooper: We started building what’s called the ABILITY House, homes for low-income families with disabilities, built with accessibility. And we accessed volunteers with disabilities to build the homes.
Cooper: Millard invited me to a major home project in Alabama where I met Harris. The three of us were driving across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and they were describing the Selma March as we drove. Harris was describing his time with Martin Luther King. He said, “There’s where the dogs attacked.” It was an incredible story. Millard was sharing his story, and I’m sitting in the middle of these two icons. And all I could add as I pointed to the right and said, “That’s where I was born.” They looked at me with interest. I was born there. My father was in the Air Force where there used to be a base. Harris replied he was stationed there as well. Small world.
Cooper: We did work with the Corporation for National Community Service many years ago. We had VISTA connections as we built homes. The ABILITY House did win an award by President Bush, the last award for volunteerism presented at the White House.
Anything else you would want to add?
Smith: Public Health AmeriCorps is an unprecedented, historic relationship between two federal agencies, so we just need people to answer the call. I was with President Biden a couple of weeks ago at the United We Stand summit, where he announced a United We Serve campaign. The President really sees service as a way to help bring the country together—bring people together.
Now we need people to answer the call. No matter your age and current situation, we need folks to consider signing up to become a Public Health AmeriCorps member, becoming a grantee to run important projects, supporting our Public Health AmeriCorps members in your community? Now that we have the resources, we need people to answer the call to service, and we’re ready to go!