An Idea Whose Time Has Come

I planted trees yesterday morning with an amazing group of young women and men from Americorps.


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AmeriCorps engages more than 75,000 Americans in intensive service each year at nonprofits, schools, public agencies, and community and faith-based groups across the country.


By their own testimony, they had a great time. At the end, so many of them lined up to shake our hands, smiling broadly and making eye contact. They told our project leader that they want to work with Trees Atlanta again soon. They covet our green t-shirts, which are handed out only to those who have volunteered with the organization six times.


Yesterday got me thinking.


At first, about my current students. I happen to be grading some exams this weekend, and I’m pleased to say that some of them did well, even very well.


Some others, not so much.


Not so much, that is, despite the glacially slow pace at which we are moving through the textbook. It’s the same book that my professor at Princeton used, back in the spring of 1980. (Latin hasn’t changed much in the past 2000 years.) Forty (40) chapters, all of which my classmates and I raced through in that one semester.


My own students in 2015? Wait for it: thirteen (13) chapters in the same period of time. And still it seems that some of them (but by no means all, I’m delighted to say) can’t or simply won’t read and study; that they remain dependent on me to spoon-feed them; that they repeatedly crib their assignments from the Internet; that they may have never in their lives had the happy experience of knowing that they truly mastered something, that they achieved perfection, instead resigning themselves to mediocrity, to cutting corners, to feeling chronically inadequate.


Those kids from Americorps though. They accepted a challenge, they rose to the occasion, and after only three hours of hard work, they could drive away knowing that they had changed for the better one street in one neighborhood in one major American city.


Plus, they got their hands dirty. They sweated. They spent three whole hours without looking once at an electronic screen of any kind.


We need compulsory national service in this country.


For plenty of reasons, but above all, because all young people should have the experience of being faced with something hard, in settings where others are depending on them, so that they can know exactly what it feels like to fully commit to something and to triumph in the end. 


Having reflected on all this, my thoughts turned — as they often do these days — to those young men from my hometown whom I have written about again and again, the ones who, after spending two and half years in prison awaiting trial, recently accepted the offer of a plea bargain from the DA that will see them released in January 2016.


One of whom once had an offer of an athletic scholarship to attend college:


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The other of whom was in the process of enlisting in our armed services, when he was rounded up.


What would it take, I wonder, for us to simply imagine that every one of our children has the potential and deserves the opportunity to do something as meaningful and important in his or her life as these two young men I read about this morning, Alec Karakatsanis and Phil Telfeyan, top Harvard Law School graduates who stood to make a gold mine in the legal profession but walked away from that to co-found Equal Justice Under Law, a nonprofit organization whose mission is

promoting a society in which all human beings can flourish by ensuring that the legal system protects the important principles of human and civil rights, equality, and fairness. We fight the inequalities that continue to permeate both our legal system and our society as a whole.

Extraordinary young men who should be ordinary young men. We should aspire that all of our children acquire the ability, intellectual honesty, and passion needed to write something like this, which I excerpt from Alec’s commentary “Policing, Mass Imprisonment, and the Failure of American Lawyers” in Harvard Law Review 128 Harv. L. Rev. F. 253:

[T]he consequences of the policing-to-incarceration pipeline go well beyond physical banishment; they include what we do to people in our cages: scandalous medical and mental health care, brutal beatings, rampant sexual trauma, extended periods of solitary confinement, and coerced labor; obliteration of parental and other family relationships; severing of friendships; loss of jobs; revocation of the right to vote; rendering families homeless; deportation; and crushing cycles of debt, despair, and alienation.


We have barely cared about these consequences largely because they aren’t happening to wealthy white people. To the contrary, we have smothered, silenced, and erased them. One cannot even engage in a thought experiment about what would happen if other demographic groups were the ones being stopped, probed, strip searched, violently raided, disenfranchised, tased, shot, and caged for years because it is not possible to square such thoughts with how our society works. If nonviolent criminal laws were enforced on college campuses or investment banks for just a single day in the same rates as in poor communities, there would be twenty-four-hour news vans outside of every local jail and immediate public hearings about the harshness and efficacy of our legal system. Does anyone doubt that our lawyer-made doctrines of policing interactions, criminal procedure, sentencing, punishment, jail conditions, and every other area of related law would look thoroughly different? Instead, tens of millions of arrests later, we’re starting to have symposia in which people talk about whether everything will be better if we give police more money to buy cameras for their lapels.

What would it take to create more Alecs and Phils? Of course I don’t know for sure. But it wouldn’t surprise me if at least some of those Americorps kids go on in their lives to do some amazing and admirable things.


It wouldn’t surprise me at all.



One thought on “An Idea Whose Time Has Come

  1. I couldn’t agree more. From the CCC to VISTA to Americorps, domestic volunteer service has been a win/win for this country

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