On May 13, I joined with some volunteers from Up With Trees, a Tulsa organization that plants and maintains trees, mostly on public land in cooperation with the city government. This organization applied to Americorps, the federal entity that coordinates many different volunteer efforts. Americorps approved their application and sent about eight young Americans to help Up With Trees in city-wide tree maintenance activities for three weeks. On May 13, the young people (who received room and board, and a small stipend) helped Up With Trees prune and mulch the trees in a municipal park in the Greenwood district of North Tulsa. It was a perfect spring morning and I could not have been in a better place.
Nor could I have been with better people. These young people came from many places such as Montana, Iowa, Minnesota, Georgia, and New Jersey. Some had just graduated from high school, some from college. Two of the college graduates majored in political science and wanted to have some environmental influence on government policy. Politicians spend their time saying ridiculous things to get people to vote for them, but when work has to be done and done right, they (we hope) rely on their advisors, among whom these two young women may eventually number. One was a child psychology major, who had never heard that there was such a field of study as environmental psychology. A human habitat that includes trees makes people feel better and heal from injuries faster. Planting trees produces measurable social benefits. And then there was the young woman, just out of high school, who wanted to study both engineering and art, because she wanted to produce sculptures that produced energy, for example artistic wind turbines for municipal parks. It is on this kind of creativity that the only hope of our future rests.
Tree work is far from the only thing that the Americorps students are doing. They also help low to moderate income people prepare tax returns and provide activities for school children. Their next stop, after Tulsa, is Ferguson, Missouri, where they will help kids, many of them from families that feel that the dominant white culture is oppressing them. They need to learn positive responses, to help their communities, rather than to create an expensive and dangerous law enforcement problem.
I was glad to spend a relaxing morning with these students, to hear their stories, and to let them know that scholars such as myself take their aspirations seriously and appreciate their devotion to making the world better.
This is the American model of improving our shared public spaces: the federal government allocates money to young people to work for the public good before entering their careers. It is money well spent. The French model, based on my limited observations last summer, is a little different. There, the government uses a great deal of money to hire people to do all the work in shared public spaces. I watched a team of five government employees in Strasbourg cutting away weeds from cracks in sidewalks and streets. I think the American way is probably more cost effective. But there are politicians in America who think that any spending on the public good is a waste of money. These opponents of the shared public good are undermining the future of America. Americorps students are doing a lot of good for not much money. A degenerated park in North Tulsa, or disaffected youth in Ferguson, can be costly problems. If politicians would only look past the economics of campaign donations and see that supporting public service is an inexpensive way to accomplish essential goals.
The students in the Americorps group had many different goals in life, but just one purpose: to make America better.