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Josh Fryday announcing the Civic Action Fellowship in February of this year
Josh Fryday announcing the Civic Action Fellowship in February of this year Courtesy of California Volunteers

The coronavirus peril is global. Much of the response must, of course, be 

international or national if it is to matter at all. In the United States, only the federal government can pump out stimulus in the trillions of dollars, or set quarantine or travel restrictions at international ports.

But if anything has become obvious through the past two months of American response to the virus, it is that most of what has been positive and effective has happened elsewhere than in Washington.

The people who have taken the lead have been governors, both Republican and Democratic. Mayors, of cities big and small. Not all business officials, but many of them. The staff and leaders of universities and community colleges, elementary schools and high schools, libraries and civic clubs. Frontline health-care workers, people working in hospitals and clinics, children and parents. People and groups like these, and on down a long list, have been innovating, acting, sharing, rescuing.

What we think America is, or should be at a time of crisis, has been demonstrated mainly on the statewide, regional, community, and personal level.

Last week, Deb Fallows wrote about libraries’ response. Now that their physical spaces have been closed, many libraries have been innovative about extending their digital and virtual reach. Before that, I wrote about emerging plans to sustain the overall economies of “left-behind” non-coastal regions, and about why the same small businesses that have helped rebuild so many smaller cities were now critically at risk.

Now, a look at how several groups promoting civic engagement and civic service, as a long-term project, have responded to this era’s emergency. This installment concerns California Volunteers, the civic-service operation overseen by California’s state government. Following ones will include FUSE Corps, a nonprofit organization that assists local governments;  NationSwell, promoting service around the country; the Innovation Collective, based in Idaho; and more.

Courtesy of California Volunteers
Josh Fryday, who is now in his late 30s, is the current head of California Volunteers. He grew up in Northern California, went to college at UC Berkeley, and, after his graduation in 2003, worked as a community organizer and on political campaigns. Then he returned to Berkeley for law school, from which he received his degree in 2009.

After law school, Fryday spent four years in the Navy, as an officer in the Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps. He also clerked in federal and city District Attorney’s offices in the San Francisco area, and moved back to Novato, a city of some 50,000 people on the northern end of the San Francisco Bay, where he had grown up. There he and his wife, Mollye, a schoolteacher, live with their young sons. In 2015, Fryday ran for and won a seat on the Novato city council. In 2018, he became the city’s mayor—a rotating position among city council members. All this background is relevant in describing Fryday’s roots in the area and the evolution of his belief in different forms of public service.

Last summer, the recently inaugurated governor of California, Gavin Newsom, announced that Fryday would become California’s Chief Service Officer and the head of California Volunteers. This is a cabinet-level position designed to coordinate and encourage volunteer activities across the state (including those with the federal Americorps program). As the Cal Volunteers website puts it:

We are the state office tasked with engaging Californians in service, volunteering and civic action to tackle our State’s most pressing challenges and while lifting up all communities.

I first met Fryday early this year, in Southern California, at a gathering in my home town of Redlands, where he was considering adding statewide tree-planting efforts to the roster of projects for students and volunteers. We met again in early February in Washington, after he had just announced an ambitious new project.

The new program was called the California Civic Action Fellowship, and it was a cooperative effort among the state government, the federal AmeriCorps program, and eight universities in the state. Five of the schools were public, and three private. They were: the University of California branches in Berkeley and Merced; the Cal State campuses in Los Angeles and Stanislaus (in the Central Valley); San José State University; and the private institutions Dominican University of California (in San Rafael, near Novato), the University of the Pacific (in Stockton), and California Lutheran University (in Thousand Oaks, in Ventura County west of Los Angeles).

The point of the fellowships was to give California students a financial incentive to make serious commitments to volunteer civic activity. You can read more of the details from Inside Higher Ed here or in a PDF announcement here, but in essence students could earn up to $10,000 toward college costs, among other benefits, in exchange for spending a semester in organized civic service. The program’s first-year goals were for a cadre of 250 Civic Action Fellows, toward a long-term target of 10,000. The costs of the program are to be split among the state government, the federal AmeriCorps program, and the universities themselves.

The short-term payoff for students and their families was broadening the range of people who could afford higher education, much as the GI Bill and Pell Grants have done over the years. The long-term goal, explicitly built into the program, was to inculcate a lifetime habit of service and engagement. (As Fryday explained in this Marin Magazine interview last year.)

Consider the parallels with other programs: Incentives and benefits for military service, including ROTC and the GI Bill and others, introduced more Americans to the idea of service-in-uniform than would otherwise have occurred. Teach for America expanded the pool of young people with personal experience in the realities of public schooling. The new Report for America program aims to do something similar with local journalism. A few years’ service in the Peace Corps left many former volunteers with a lifelong interest in the world beyond U.S. borders. Most Americans who have spent even a few months someplace else now have a different, sharpened view of both the greatness and the limitations of their home country. I have never worked in a restaurant, but everyone I know who has says that the experience of waiting tables or tending bar provided lessons about people, manners, and decency that they have never forgotten.

Through our travels Deb and I have met groups of all ages—students, retirees, people in between—who were part of organized service programs—for instance, this AmeriCorps contingent we saw at work renovating old school buildings in Ajo, Arizona. Regardless of age, most people we met in these programs said that the experience of serving had changed their outlooks and plans.

Members of the AmeriCorps NCCC program, at work in Ajo, Arizona, a few years ago. (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

As it happened, my talk with Fryday in early February was the last in-person interview I had with anyone, before the current lockdown. And in that pre-pandemic era, he explained the program’s three levels of ambition: at the individual level, then community-wide, and then in very broad civic terms.

The individual benefit was mainly expansion of opportunity—bringing higher education within reach of more people, in an era when advanced schooling is ever more expensive, and ever more important for economic mobility and opportunity. The community benefit was additional time, attention, and care devoted to whatever a community needed most, from reading-readiness programs to working in food banks.

“One, we’re addressing college affordability,” he told me, of these ambitions. “And two, we’re addressing whatever the actual need of a specific community is. In some places, that will mean reading and mentoring. In other places, in might be access to health care or climate-related work.”

Then, he said, there was a third, broader potential benefit: “This can be a way to help unite Californians, who are divided in so many ways. Service can be an authentic way we bring people together from all different backgrounds.”

Fryday made the point, which I’ve heard from many of his contemporaries who have served in the military, that his years in uniform marked a turn in his own sense of civic connection. “In the military, we came from completely different backgrounds,” he said. “It forces you to live and work together with people you might otherwise never have come in contact with.” He mentioned the similarities to AmeriCorps programs like the NCCC: “We lived in barracks; they live in tents—but you’re doing it not just for an MTV show but to actually toward a common goal.” He said that the experience of service also created a sense of connection across generations, which he hoped the Civic Action Fellows program might eventually foster. Military veterans of different ages ask one another about their branch of service. Alumni of a high school or college may be separated by time but can feel linked by traditions or memories. With an organized volunteer program, Fryday said, “You could ask people, ‘Where did you serve? What was it like in your time?'”

“Over the past couple of generations,” he said, “we’ve stopped expecting people to do things for others. But [with this program] now we have educational leaders, leaders in government, saying to our young people: ‘We need you to serve! We want you to serve. And we’ll help create opportunities for you to serve, and will help you pay for college too.'”

I spoke with Fryday recently about how these aims and programs had changed, now that his volunteers, and others, were not supposed to get together for projects but instead to stay at home.

I reached him by phone, on his way to a visit to a food bank. The state government in California, plus the mayors of many cities, had been relatively early in applying state-at-home guidance and rules. “Doing our part for California now entails staying at home and being safe,” Fryday said. “But we’re hoping people will support their neighbors in all the ways that are possible now.” He and the state’s “First Partner,” Jennifer Siebel Newsom, who is chair of the California Volunteers board, co-authored an op-ed in the The Sacramento Bee recommending some steps. Among the items on their list:

▪ Donate to a shelter or food bank: During this time, organizations are running low on food items. Please help them stay well-stocked for those in need.

▪ Support nonprofits: Find a fund to donate to nonprofits in your community on the Philanthropy California COVID-19 Response Page.

▪ Deliver meals: [Where allowed.] Vulnerable seniors are at greatest risk from COVID-19. Let’s help keep them safe and cared for.

▪ Volunteer at a food bank: If you are not in a high-risk group, food banks are in great need of volunteers to help pack and sort food.

Is any of this “the” answer to the public-health and economic crisis of the moment? Can they take the place of effective global coordination? Or national leadership? Sadly, no, on all counts.

But efforts like these, across the country, can be important parts of an answer. And they are worth notice as indicators of civic functionality, even as we reckon with the consequences of all that has gone wrong. Next up in this space: further examples, from different parts of the country.