Typically I don’t write about or even allude to politics on my social media. I talk about it enough in real life and usually I’m introduced by my liberal friends (who make up the majority of my friends) as “my Republican friend, Jenna.” However I generally prefer to live in the fake world of The West Wing and use my social media to fangirl over Aaron Sorkin.
I’m not going to talk about the recent US election because the president-elect doesn’t represent the vast majority of my views, nor the views of most other Republicans I know. What I am going to talk about is reconciling my belief in small government, market-based solutions, a strong military, and individual freedom and responsibility with my work in civic & community engagement. To many, these things may seem to be at odds.
My first job in higher education was managing a student poll worker program. For two years we worked with the local Board of Elections to place nearly 400 students from four area colleges in the field working on Election Day. I also advised college republicans and college democrats. I cared less about how students voted and more about their ability to back up their beliefs and engage in the political process. I remain so proud of the work we did on campus and the civility and friendships my students cultivated. Those students are now adults, many with amazing careers directly in or related to politics, including working in the White House.
When that funding stream ended, as it so often does, I needed to make a choice about whether I wanted to manage an AmeriCorps program. I knew little about AmeriCorps at the time and probably thought as many still do, that it provides handouts to communities and why would we ever agree to pay someone to volunteer? Shouldn’t people want to do that regardless? Five years later I’m working at a nonprofit whose mission is to make a service year a common opportunity and expectation for all young people in America. I also wrote a dissertation on the impact of AmeriCorps on civic engagement outcomes for alumni.
While our country was built on the backs of elite White men, it was also founded on the belief that with rights came great responsibility to ensure our freedoms continue. Community and civic engagement initiatives are actually at the very core of what it means to be Republican, at least to me. I believe in small government and that communities know what is best for them better than any federal entity. I believe that those community members need to be engaged in finding and executing solutions that will address the needs they have. Those solutions should be asset-based and draw on existing strengths. I believe that we should all find a way to give back to our country whether it’s through military or civilian service, educating our young people, or any number of other public service professions. While tax payers do invest in these programs, they are a conduit to mobilize millions of unpaid volunteers and billions of dollars in donations and in-kind support. That far exceeds the federal allocation to these programs. They stimulate entrepreneurship and give young people the personal and professional skills our country needs. With AmeriCorps specifically, young people earn education awards that can serve as an on-ramp to higher education or help to pay back student loans.
Civic and community engagement programs also often instill life-long civic habits of volunteering, voting, deliberation, and other things that are important to the health of our democracy. Those values are valued and fostered by both parties.