Ask what you can do for California

Illustration of people in neighborhood waving to each other from their homes while practicing social distancing
Armaan Mumtaz/File

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Ask not what your president can do for you (it may not be much), but what you can do for your community (it’s a lot).

Just as a forest fire clears the path for new growth, every modern national crisis has preceded a wave of civic engagement — often paired with an element of workforce development. In the wake of the Great Depression, 3 million Americans joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, also known as Roosevelt’s Tree Army. In the aftermath of World War II, young and old Americans responded to former President John F. Kennedy’s call to serve abroad by joining the Peace Corps.

Today, we are experiencing the same sort of catastrophic economic decline that defined some of our nation’s most difficult decades. How will we respond to the community’s needs being exposed and exacerbated by the coronavirus? In earlier decades, the federal government led that response. Now, it is on states and individuals to start the recovery.

It’s unlikely that the federal government will provide an opportunity for Americans to collectively work toward a better normal after this pandemic. President Donald Trump has identified other priorities, such as curtailing immigration and cutting environmental regulations, so states must lead the charge in creating a better normal. California Gov. Gavin Newsom has set the standard with the California Volunteers program.

If Franklin D. Roosevelt had a Tree Army, then Newsom and Josh Fryday, California’s chief service officer, are essentially commanding a “Civic Squadron.” California Volunteers taps into private, public and philanthropic resources to give Californians of all backgrounds and means the opportunity to serve others.

In the war against malaise and apathy, members of California Volunteers are on the frontlines of civic engagement. Case in point, the Civic Action Fellowship within the California Volunteers office is creating space for Californians to serve their community. The fellowship pairs state resources and the federal AmeriCorps program with students at eight universities, public and private, across the state. Through this program, California is investing in a generation of students becoming lifelong civic volunteers. UC Berkeley students are among those eligible to earn $10,000 toward their education by spending a semester in some form of organized civic service. Eventually, the program hopes to support 10,000 fellows.

Other states should launch similar initiatives. In doing so, they’ll feed two birds with one scone: investing in meaningful efforts to improve local communities and instilling a much-needed sense of civic duty in the rising generation. This latter goal is going to become all the more important as communities across the nation are forced to weave a new social fabric torn by the turbulence of the coronavirus. Young folks, in particular, are the sort of nimble, energetic and idealistic volunteers our society needs to knit our loose ends back together while sewing a stronger safety net.

“There’s no time like the present” has never been more accurate when it comes to spurring a new wave of civic engagement. Through isolation, many Americans have come to recognize that we are all much more connected than we have previously acknowledged. The time will soon come when we need to turn awareness of our connectivity into community-enriching activities. Absent is a sort of intentional restoration of our social fabric, thus we may be headed toward more than just an economic recession. According to Vivek Murthy, former surgeon general, there’s a chance we’ll slide into a social recession as well.

What is a social recession? It’s the disconnect that appears if a fear of others, public interaction or community engagement in general keeps people inside once shelter-in-place orders have been lifted. It’s the difficulty of reaching out to strangers when we’ve become accustomed to living only with ourselves. It’s the dearth of opportunities to meet new people and collaboratively solve problems.

But just as an economic recession can be solved with an influx of capital, a social recession can similarly be lifted by a swell of community capital. When freed from the confines of our living room, we cannot retreat into our old habits of isolation. Instead, we must swap the living room for the civic square, the library, the community center, the local school or wherever you can go to give back and get involved. Thankfully, California Volunteers is already hard at work to make it as easy as possible to restore and improve our social fabric.

Trump has equated the coronavirus crisis to a war, but he has often fought the wrong battles (for example, by condemning states for taking preparatory actions). The real battles — against the spread of the disease and, soon, against a social recession — are being fought by brave Americans volunteering their time, energy and resources for the greater good.

Are you ready to join the fight and “enlist” in California’s Civic Squadron?

I’ve joined the fight by starting Neighbors for Nonprofits, or N4N: an organization committed to turning neighborhood chatter into action. Once we are able to get off of Nextdoor and go out of our front doors, N4N will provide Californians with the resources they need to find a cause they believe in and quickly lend a hand. In short, N4N is removing barriers to service by bringing nonprofits to you. By connecting you to your community and its core nonprofits, N4N will make it much easier for Californians to fabricate a better normal after the coronavirus.

Your fight can start now. Identify your cause. Identify a community member in need. Identify your first step and get going. Even the smallest action can send out a ripple of progress. #CaliforniansForAll.

Kevin Frazier is a student at the UC Berkeley School of Law and the founder of Neighbors for Nonprofits.