*cross-posted from the CoP*
By Shirley Sagawa
As tributes pour in about the role of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, he is being heralded for promoting national-service legislation, but little attention is focusing on the pivotal role he played in persuading liberals to back the ideas that eventually led to the creation of the AmeriCorps program. His vigorous efforts to promote the importance of public service — and to offer incentives to encourage people of all income levels to serve — will be one of his most important legacies.
In the late 1980s, the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of moderate Democrats, unveiled a legislative proposal to require students to give a year of civilian or military service in order to get financial aid. Liberals didn’t like the idea of forcing needy students to serve. The opposition of House Democrats was so strong, it looked like any attempt to authorize national service legislation linking service to benefits was going to die.
But Senator Kennedy saw the wisdom of strengthening Americans’ engagement in public service. For him, it was a value deeply ingrained in his family and in the work he did every day to fight for those in need. He sought to put together legislation that would serve this end — including a test of the controversial idea of tying student aid to full-time service. He worked tirelessly to convince his House colleagues to go along, while at the same time, courting Senate Republicans and President George H.W. Bush.
The legislation that resulted from his vision laid the groundwork for AmeriCorps — which offers an education stipend in exchange for service — as well as the Learn and Serve program to integrate community service into the lives of children in elementary and secondary school.
In 1993 he successfully led the fight to persuade Congress to pass President Clinton’s AmeriCorps plan. And last year, seeing the first opportunity in more than a decade to extend and expand national service, he worked quietly behind the scenes with Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch to prepare new legislation that would attract bipartisan support and might be signed within the first 100 days of a new administration.
This forethought resulted in a bill signed by President Obama on April 21 — the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, so named by the gracious act of his longtime friend and sometime opponent, Senator Hatch.
I first met Senator Kennedy near three decades ago, as an intern in his office at the beginning of the Reagan administration. Awed by his energy and commitment, I was inspired to pursue a career in public policy.
I had the chance to work for him again after law school, as an aide on the Senate Labor Committee, working on national service and youth policy. Because of Senator Kennedy’s leadership on behalf of national service, millions of other Americans who never had the opportunity to meet him have also been introduced to the life-changing power of serving others. They have and will go on to make a difference and to inspire others to serve.
Through them, as Senator Kennedy put it nearly three decades ago, “the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”
Shirley Sagawa is a visiting fellow at the Center for American Progress, in Washington.