Los Angeles’s Griffith Park is instantly recognizable to movie watchers, with its iconic observatory, sprawling views, and, of course, the Hollywood sign. Tourists and Angelenos alike flock to the hills to hike and take selfies, oblivious to a quiet climate revolution taking place below, in a tree nursery at the park’s base.
For Amaiya Mason, that part of Griffith Park is the office.
Mason is a fellow with the California Climate Action Corps, a state-level program that utilizes funds from AmeriCorps, the federal government’s national service program, to place mostly young people with local organizations that work on climate-oriented projects. Beginning in September, she was deployed to a nonprofit called City Plants, which runs the Griffith Park tree nursery as part of a public-private partnership with the city.
A native and resident of Compton, Mason spearheads campaigns for City Plants’ Tree Ambassador program, which pays community members to lead tree planting efforts in under-resourced neighborhoods such as Boyle Heights, Koreatown, and Watts, which have little tree coverage and are more susceptible to extreme heat. She has helped coordinate campaigns with the program’s 13 ambassadors, each helping plant trees in low-canopy neighborhoods. Along the way, she’s developed skills, and a passion, for community organizing—listening to residents’ mistrust of government and changing her pitch to accommodate it; working with people in lower-income communities to hear about their needs; and hosting events where residents of those neighborhoods take home free trees.
The California Climate Action Corps has already shaped her career goals and opportunities. Upon completion of her term of service, she’ll earn $10,000 in federal and state education awards—an “awesome perk,” she says, that will allow her to finish her associate’s degree at a community college and eventually pursue a graduate degree. And the work she is doing has fortified her long-term plans—bringing climate solutions back to her hometown.
“I’m always like, how can I bring this back to Compton?” Mason said. “I really want to bring a compost facility. I want to have a sustainability office in Compton. I’m getting to work so closely with city planners and other organizations that they’re affiliated with, so I get to learn the ins and outs of what needs to happen, so that I can bring it to my people.”
Mason’s desire to continue her climate work is exactly what the founders of the California Climate Action Corps were hoping for. When Governor Gavin Newsom’s office set out to create a climate corps, they focused on three pillars: meaningful climate work, equity, and service. And while numerous conservation corps and local-level climate programs exist around the country, Newsom and his team, led by the chief service officer, Josh Fryday, consciously designed the CCAC to be a national model to show President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats not only how to create a climate corps, but how to do it right.
Indeed, a version of what Newsom has started, on a small scale in California, might well happen nationally. As of early December, the Build Back Better plan approved by the House of Representatives included $15.2 billion in new funding for AmeriCorps to launch a nationwide climate corps. If the program survives at that size and the Build Back Better bill passes, it would represent the largest expansion of national service in decades.
AmeriCorps currently has about 75,000 annual participants. The Civilian Climate Corps would add 300,000 new positions—a monumental victory for both national service and the fight against climate change. But its creation would present three major practical challenges. First, can it be scaled up at such a pace without diluting its impact or creating the kinds of unintended scandals political enemies and the press might seize on? Second, can it fulfill the demands of the left, including greater representation of low-income and marginalized participants than AmeriCorps has traditionally provided, and find them good-paying jobs in the emerging green economy? Third, and most importantly, can a service program focused on one issue—climate change—be successful and unifying when one of the two major political parties denies that the problem even exists?
Some answers to these questions can be found by looking into the details of the federal legislation—and into what is effectively its predecessor, the California Climate Action Corps.
When President Bill Clinton signed the National Community and Service Trust Act in 1993, which authorized the creation of AmeriCorps, he and the lawmakers who shepherded its passage had a big vision. His budgets pushed for 50,000 servicemembers to go out into the field each year, with the intention of growing that number to the point that every American who wanted to serve would have the opportunity to do so.
But that goal proved elusive. AmeriCorps has managed to survive, and in some ways thrive, over the years, thanks to the bipartisan support it enjoys at the state and local levels because of its decentralized structure. The bulk of federal AmeriCorps dollars flows to individual states’ “service commissions,” which are in large part controlled by governors. The commissions then vet the nonprofit organizations that receive those dollars and use them to cover the living allowances of AmeriCorps members. Indeed, it was a Republican governor, George W. Bush, who, when he became president, expanded AmeriCorps to 75,000 participants.
In Congress, however, AmeriCorps quickly developed enemies, especially on the right. House Republicans, when in the majority, have repeatedly tried to zero out the program’s budget. Though those attempts have failed, they have effectively kept a lid on AmeriCorps’s growth.
The program also has antagonists on the left. Its roots in the moderate Clinton administration make it suspect in the eyes of some progressives. Public-sector unions have long worried that AmeriCorps members might steal government jobs. And some members of the Congressional Black Caucus see it as a program that primarily parachutes affluent white people into their communities rather than hiring disadvantaged members of those communities. (In fact, AmeriCorps’s membership broadly reflects the demographics of the country, with mostly white and middle-class participants and significant numbers of Black and Latino members.)
Because of this political resistance, AmeriCorps remained stuck for years at 75,000 participants, with insufficient administrative funding and penurious stipends for members. Ironically, the low member stipends made it even more difficult to recruit people of color and low-income people to serve.
When Biden won the presidency and Democrats took control of the Senate, champions of AmeriCorps saw the potential for a breakthrough. Democratic Senator Chris Coons, a longtime champion of national service and the president’s best friend in the Senate, had been working with Republican Senator Roger Wicker on legislation to expand AmeriCorps. Coons and other lawmakers succeeded in adding an extra $1 billon, available through 2024, for AmeriCorps (whose 2020 budget was only $979 million) to the American Rescue Plan, the $2 trillion stimulus bill Democrats passed in March. Those funds provided for much-needed administrative upgrades, lower matching grant requirements for partner nonprofits that struggled during the pandemic, and new service positions to help with pandemic-related aid work. Most critically, the bill raised the size of the AmeriCorps annual living allowance to a minimum of $16,000—still meager, but higher than before.
As traditional national service advocates were finally securing a victory in Washington, the idea of corps work was picking up steam, unexpectedly, on the left. In 2018, the Sunrise Movement, an influential progressive environmental group, began calling for a Green New Deal—an homage to Franklin D. Roosevelt that featured national service components similar to those in FDR’s original program. During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps supported the “tree army”—3 million (mostly white) unemployed men who received wages, food, clothing, and shelter in exchange for manual labor in conservation. Under the Green New Deal, a Civilian Climate Corps would combat climate change with a particular eye to Black, brown, and low-income communities that bear the brunt of the crisis.
Sunrise promoted the CCC heavily as its members helped the Biden and Bernie Sanders camps to create a unified platform in the 2020 Democratic primaries. By the time Biden became the official nominee, a Civilian Climate Corps was on his climate platform.
Sunrise’s original, somewhat vague plan called for creating a new agency, potentially housed in the U.S. Department of Labor, to manage the new CCC. AmeriCorps was mostly left out of the picture.
This plan, however, posed practical problems. For instance, a new agency would have little of the preexisting infrastructure, such as relationships with reliable state and local nonprofits, needed to roll out such a large program. That could lead to snafus, like a weak grantee misappropriating funds, that might garner media investigations and howls of protest by conservatives that the whole CCC enterprise is a waste of taxpayer dollars.
Fortunately, as congressional Democrats began working on the bill, it quickly became clear that there was no way to avoid running the proposed program through AmeriCorps—for the simple reason that the budget reconciliation process, through which Build Back Better would have to pass, makes the creation of new agencies and programs impractical. “If we had to say, would you want the CCC to be run out of AmeriCorps, ‘probably not’ is the answer,” Lauren Maunus, the advocacy director at Sunrise, told me. “But is there a vehicle that makes more sense than AmeriCorps for national service in funded and existing programs? No.”
From there, progressives such as Senator Ed Markey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez negotiated with Coons and national service allies to merge their proposals. To bring members of the Black Caucus on board, they agreed to extend the American Rescue Plan pay raises to lift the allowance to a minimum of $15 per hour. In addition, several Hill staffers told me Biden committed to ensuring that 50 percent of CCC projects are in “environmental justice communities”—that is, localities whose low-income or minority residents are disproportionately affected by climate change—and that 50 percent of recruits come from those communities. The bill also provides about $1.1 billion in extra funds for AmeriCorps to continue expanding its administrative capacity.
Media coverage of the seemingly endless clashes between progressive and moderate Democrats that have characterized Build Back Better has damaged the party’s brand and deflated Biden’s approval rating. But at least in the case of the Civilian Climate Corps, the sausage making led to an admirable result. The zeal of progressive groups like the Sunrise Movement—which staged hunger strikes and protests outside the White House, among other actions—put the CCC on the Democrats’ agenda and helped keep it there during endless rounds of budget cutting. Knowledgeable moderates like Coons helped broker the negotiations in ways that kept both progressive lawmakers and the likes of Joe Manchin on board, all the while grounding the legislation in the familiar and reliable soil of AmeriCorps. “There was a lot of agreement around AmeriCorps serving as the center pole,” says AnnMaura Connolly, the president of Voices for National Service and a key player in the negotiations. “Folks had priority pieces, and that was clear, but in a weird way, they were so complementary that there wasn’t a need for drama.”
While Washington was wrestling in the early months of 2021 with legislation to create a Civilian Climate Corps, California was a step ahead: It was rolling one out.
In September 2020, Newsom announced the creation of the California Climate Action Corps, which began accepting applicants. By January 2021, the inaugural cohort of CCAC members were in the field, working on fire mitigation, food rescue and recovery, and urban greening in five cities.
One of those members was Maricella Fuentes. A 2020 graduate of the University of California, Davis, Fuentes had been trying unsuccessfully to find environmental work during the height of the pandemic. She applied to the CCAC and was accepted to work at Veggielution, a nonprofit in East San Jose that grows healthy crops on a six-acre community farm. As a CCAC member, she helped distribute the food to local families in need, processed excess food to either donate or sell at Veggielution’s farm stand, and taught local families about minimizing methane emissions through composting and gardening.
As Fuentes’s seven-month stint came to an end, her bosses at Veggielution were impressed enough to offer her an interview and eventually a job. Since September, she has been on staff as a communications coordinator.
Fuentes’s experience is exactly what advocates of a national Civilian Climate Corps are hoping to deliver—a chance for a young person of a modest background to fight climate change through grassroots service, and then translate that service into a good job. Though the CCAC has only been up and running for a year, there are strong signs that its impact is matching its intentions. And importantly, while it’s a state-based initiative, it’s very much an AmeriCorps program, and thus an example of how local governments can put federal funds to their best use.
The CCAC operates through AmeriCorps State and National, which dispenses funds to California’s service commission. Fellows receive a $27,000 living stipend, topping off the average AmeriCorps contribution in California—$18,000, according to Fryday—with money that initially came from the governor’s discretionary funding and now is provided through state legislation. They can receive educational awards up to $10,000—the first $6,345, for a full term, comes from the federal Segal Education Award, and the state will provide up to an additional $3,655. Next year, the program is expanding through a partnership with the University of California and California State University systems to provide up to another $10,000 for college students to do a yearlong term of service while still in school, through funding from the state budget.
“There’s been good programs in the past, but they’re kind of like, okay, we’ll teach you how to plant a tree or clean up a highway or debris from serving time or getting in trouble or whatever,” Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, told me. “[CCAC] is much more comprehensive. It’s really about directing people towards great careers, and skills that they can use for the rest of their lives to address poverty as well as the planet.”
In November, I shadowed a number of fellows as they went about their work. Fellows in Santa Monica collected excess food from a local Whole Foods, a partnering organization, and delivered it to a food distribution site at an elementary school in Venice Beach—thus tackling both food insecurity and methane emissions from food waste. In Los Angeles, Nithya Raman, a city councilmember, told me about sending fellows in her office on a door-knocking and phone banking campaign to connect residents in zip codes with high wildfire risk with a city service that provides rebates for turf replacement, making their homes more fire resilient. And at an outdoor sports park in Redlands, fellows sweated under a relentless late-November sun as they showed me the trees they had planted and discussed the need for greater tree coverage.
AmeriCorps has been more rigorously evaluated than most federal programs. Its education and workforce training efforts, for instance, have proved especially effective in helping recipients of the service. Those who serve in AmeriCorps, meanwhile, are more than three times as likely as their demographic peers to secure jobs in the social service sector, according to a 2018 study from Service Year Alliance and Burning Glass Technologies, a labor market analytics firm. In other words, experiences like that of Fuentes, who landed a permanent job at the nonprofit where she served, are common.
One fear about the Civilian Climate Corps, however, is that the challenge of fielding 300,000 new members could tax AmeriCorps’s management ability. The agency’s process for disbursing grants is already bogged down in red tape, and scaling up so dramatically could mean that there will not be enough time to deeply engage with local partners, thereby placing members in roles that have minimal climate impact and little bearing on their career goals. “It comes back to solidifying those local partnerships,” says Josh Fryday, the California official overseeing CCAC, which started with 300 members in 2021 and will have 1,000 in 2022. “If you don’t have those, and if they aren’t on board with it, and it’s not really in with what the local leaders are trying to accomplish, you’re going to get people doing a bunch of random stuff that’s not having an impact.”
The good news is that the new federal legislation anticipates some of these problems. In addition to extra money to administer the program, it simplifies regulations with the aim of reducing the time that both grantees and government officials spend navigating AmeriCorps’s complex bureaucracy, which has been a source of consternation in the past. And it gives AmeriCorps considerable time—eight years—to scale up from its current 75,000 members to 300,000.
The far more worrying problem is that a new federal Civilian Climate Corps, passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by a Democratic president with no support from GOP lawmakers, could provoke a political backlash. It is not hard to imagine Republicans in Washington, if they reassume power, attempting to defund the program, and GOP states refusing to participate, as happened with Obamacare. “To the extent that national service can be a vehicle for bringing people together across difference, I am concerned that the branding is not an invitation for common venture,” says John Gomperts, the former director of AmeriCorps. “That worries me.”
The solution may be to be flexible with the brand. That is what the California Climate Action Corps has done. For example, CCAC is working with Fresno’s new Republican mayor, former police chief Jerry Dyer, to help him achieve his campaign goal of “beautification.” In reality, the fellows who work in Fresno do the same urban greening work as those in Los Angeles or San Jose. CCAC is also starting a program in rural Butte County, one of California’s more conservative areas, to do fire mitigation work. The county, recently decimated by deadly fires, is grateful for the help. They just avoid using terms like “climate change.”
“These are communities that are being affected by it,” Fryday said. “They may not talk about it as climate, but we’re going to have to make sure Climate Corps works for them.”
A federal Civilian Climate Corps could be similarly flexible in how it markets itself. AmeriCorps has existing partnerships in every red state, including commissions that work with Republican political leaders. In Florida, for example, state leaders are thinking about using their existing AmeriCorps programs to start a “Resilience Corps,” parroting language that ultraconservative Governor Ron DeSantis frequently deploys, that would help develop better flood barriers and other ways to combat the effects of rising sea levels. Across the Southwest, West, and South, Republicans acknowledge that heat waves, wildfires, hurricanes, and flooding are problems, and things like planting trees or re-landscaping houses to be fire-smart are inoffensive solutions—so long as they are not aggressively marketed as being about climate change.
The danger, however, of allowing individual states and localities to label what they’re doing as “beautification” and “resilience” is that it will effectively submerge the identity of the new Civilian Climate Corps. In the Peace Corps or the military, members serve in disparate locations engaging in different roles, and yet the experience of having served in a respected national organization becomes a key part of their identity, far beyond their term. But AmeriCorps has never enjoyed that same sense of communal spirit. Many participants in AmeriCorps programs identify as employees of the nonprofits they work for—Habitat for Humanity, say, or Teach for America. It is not unusual for these members to not even know that their salaries are being paid by AmeriCorps.
California has confronted this dilemma by creating a “shared member experience program” that tries to foster esprit de corps among its far-flung CCAC fellows. The program organizes frequent group Zoom calls for fellows based on regions and focus areas, engages them in regular trainings and service days, and brings them together for presentations and networking events. “What makes this interesting and intriguing to people is that they get to be part of something,” Fryday, a Navy veteran, told me. “They get the call to arms of their generation.”
For Fuentes, those opportunities to engage with other fellows and feel like a part of something larger than her day-to-day work was one of the best things about the program. During her term, she went on a small group trip to the governor’s mansion to build a garden, participated in food rescue work, and attended workshops with other fellows in San Jose. “It really exposed me to great opportunities career-wise, but also connecting with a lot of people,” Fuentes said. “It was really well rounded with helping people like me with professional development.”
Creating a federal climate corps will be a real challenge for the Biden administration, which must balance the progressive enthusiasm fueling the legislation on a national level with the bipartisan investment needed to make it work in localities. But if national Democrats heed the lessons their California counterparts have learned, the Civilian Climate Corps can be a success story that helps achieve climate and job goals.
And if done right, the CCC can do something that sometimes feels even more difficult than stopping climate change: bring Americans together.