National division might grab headlines, but the story of uniting citizens through service in California is growing.
Over the past four years, the Our Towns team has reported on the ambitions, expansions, and innovation of California’s state-led volunteer network.
Our latest update on California Volunteers features Josh Fryday, who serves in the cabinet-level position of Chief Service Officer, in conversation with “Inside Our Towns” host Evan Sanford.
You can listen to their conversation here:
California Volunteers features several programs, including the California Climate Action Corps, a modern-day Civilian Conservation Corps; the CaliforniansForAll College Corps, which, similar to the GI Bill, provides a debt-free pathway to college in exchange for community service; among others.
In the interview, Fryday explains the importance of using the CaliforniansForAll umbrella (it is spelled that way, and often accompanied by the pound symbol on social media to create a hashtag).
“The reason that we first of all start with CaliforniansForAll is we really believe that every Californian has something to contribute,” Fryday, a Navy veteran and former mayor of his hometown of Novato, California, tells Sanford. “In a democracy, not only do they have something to contribute, we actually need them to contribute if we’re going to solve our biggest challenges, whether it’s climate change, or poverty, or homelessness, or education, disparities. We actually need to mobilize what we consider here in California is our most important asset, our most powerful asset, which is the 40 million people that call California home.”
In past “Inside Our Towns” episodes, we’ve heard people in towns large and small relay the same thing: Their town’s greatest resource, the greatest asset, is its people. In California, it carries a different weight. With a $3.37 trillion gross state product (GSP), it’s the largest sub-national economy around the globe. In the U.S., 12% of the country’s population lives there.
California Volunteer’s College Corps program is an investment in the state’s citizens and its communities that leaders are betting will pay dividends towards democracy.
The way it works, which Fryday explains to Sanford, is that Californian citizens – including Dreamers – can commit to a year of service and receive $10,000 towards their education at any one of the 46 campuses representing University of California, California State University, community college, and private university systems have been selected as program participants via a competitive grant application process.
What it adds up to, as Fryday puts it: “For Pell Grant students, for our low-income students, that’s the difference between them having to take out loans or having to work. Now they get to pursue their passion rather than have to just worry about a paycheck, and they get some work in the community doing meaningful work.
“This unprecedented service program is a down payment on our democracy. It’s not just helping the next generation graduate with less debt; it’s actually how we’re going to give our next generation of leaders the tools to create change in their community, but also to understand and learn how to work together how to solve problems together, and really try to overcome a lot of the division and polarization that we see in our society.”
With five-times as many applications as available slots, interest in the Climate Action Corps continues to grow. “There’s a thirst; there’s a hunger; people want to step up,” Fryday tells Sanford. “People want to take on climate action. They want to do it locally in their community to help their community.”
What that looks like: Planting tens of thousands of trees; processing edible food waste sustainably so that it doesn’t end up in landfills; helping residents how to address wildfire risks at the block-by-block, road-by-road level.
State-level responses in creating CCC-styled climate action programs, as Maxine Joselow reported for the Washington Post in October, is catching on.
In addition to highlighting California Volunteers, which launched the nation’s first state-level Climate Corps program of this kind back in 2020, she reports on:
- The Maine Climate Corps, which the Maine legislature allocated $200,000 in July to focus on energy efficiency and energy conservation – in a state known for its brutal winters. The program is coordinated under the umbrella of Volunteer Maine, the state’s service commission.
- The Colorado Climate Corps, run by Serve Colorado in the Office of the Lieutenant Governor, which helps mitigate the risks by thinning forests and educating homeowners about wildfire risks. (Colorado, as Joselow puts it, is a state “uniquely vulnerable to severe wildfires and extreme drought.” Our Towns reported on local-level responses, like the one in Centennial led by a local tap house, here.)
At the federal level, the Biden administration took office in 2020 with the hopes of launching a national Civilian Climate Corps to address climate change. The Build Back Better Act featured a line item of $30 billion for the new CCC, but it didn’t make the cut in the Inflation Reduction Act.
Is there a federally funded path to create a nationwide CCC, or volunteer network, and when might that take shape? We, of course, don’t know if, or when, something like that might come from inside the Beltway. But for now, we can look beyond the capital to the states for innovative models to be studied, reported on, and replicated.
“We actually set these programs up with the hope that they would become a model for the country, because we actually need the country to follow what’s happening here,” Fryday tells Sanford. “It’s the one of the best ways, we think, if not the only way, to get our country back on track to deal with the polarization, the division that we all feel is tearing us apart. And we’re seeing it work in California, and we hope it spreads fast across the country.”
We provide the Otter.ai-generated transcript below mainly as a guide to listening to the actual discussion — and with awareness that it contains typos and will differ in some word-by-word details from what you may hear for yourself. The time-stamp numbers you see are roughly cued to the portions of the “Inside Our Towns” episode.
Evan Sanford 00:07
Hi there, and welcome to this edition of Inside Our Towns. My name is Evan Sanford, and I’m a contributor for the our town’s civic Foundation, and also the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce in Redlands, California. Now to our guest today, Josh Fryday was appointed by California Governor Gavin Newsom to serve on his cabinet as the state’s Chief Service Officer. He leads California Volunteers through the Office of the Governor, and oversees programs with a force of almost 20,000 service members, which for reference is three times the size of the Peace Corps. He’s a Navy veteran, former mayor of his hometown of Novato, and earned his law degree from UC Berkeley School of Law. I’m excited to get to what he’s working on not just in his town, but across the state. And so I’d like to welcome our guest to the program. Josh, thanks for joining us.
Josh Fryday 00:58
Thank you, Evan. So fun to be here.
Evan Sanford 01:00
Let’s start with a little bit more about your background and how you ended up doing what you do. Your resume is very impressive. I tried to sum it up in three sentences, but we’d all rather hear about your journey from yourself. Not many people just wake up to be the Chief Service Officer.
Josh Fryday 01:17
That’s true. I’m very lucky. And most people don’t even know that California has a chief service officer. But it’s a really exciting position. That it is because Governor Newsom is so passionate about this issue, so passionate about civic engagement, thinking about how we create more opportunities for people serve and volunteer. And really, my entire life has been driven by the desire to serve and the most formative and meaningful experiences I’ve had in my life have come through service. And so I feel very fortunate that now I get to help others have similar experiences.
Evan Sanford 01:53
You recently appeared at the Global Summit Speaker Series hosted by the Jefferson Educational Society at the University of Redlands, what would you say were some of the takeaways from that speech?
Josh Fryday 02:05
Well, I think the takeaway is we all recognize we’re in a time of great urgency, we’re in a time of great urgency around the future of our democracy. We’re very divided right now everyone knows that we feel very polarized, we feel very disconnected from each other isolated, and people are concerned about where the country is going. And what what we are talking about in California. And the message that we’re trying to share with the world is that here in California, despite this urgency, we actually feel a significant amount of hope. We’re very hopeful. And it’s because of what we’re seeing through the impact of the service programs that we’re launching here in California, of how we’re seeing Californians come together to lift each other up to help each other. And they’re doing it in towns throughout the state and small towns, big cities, rural communities, urban communities. And it’s very, very inspiring. And it gives us a lot of hope.
Evan Sanford 03:02
Well, let’s talk about some of those programs and what you’re overseeing. You’ve got Californians for All College Corp., Californians for All Yuth Jobs Corps., and Neighbor to Neighbor. Can you tell us about those?
Josh Fryday 03:14
Yeah, and there are a handful to say so I give you credit for rolling all those out. The reason that we that we first of all we start with Californians for all is we really believe that every Californian has something to contribute, and that in a democracy, not only do they have something to contribute, we actually need them to contribute if we’re going to solve our biggest challenges whether it’s climate change, or poverty, or homelessness or education, disparities, we actually need to mobilize what we consider here in California is our most important asset, our most powerful asset, which is the 40 million people that call California home. And so we have the Californians for All College Corps and Californians for All Climate Action Corps and other programs as a way to try to mobilize all Californians to really take action in their community to be part of creating change. And these are first in the nation programs. And it’s because the governor and the legislatures recognize the need for these programs. And they’ve they’ve invested significantly in building them.
Evan Sanford 04:13
We’ll talk about Climate Corp in just a moment. But a recent op ed published by Governor Newsom outlines some of the highlights. And what he says is the importance of College Corp as a program. What did you think of that op ed?
Josh Fryday. 04:26
I thought was beautiful, but I’m very biased. But I think, listen, I think it’s a mission statement for this. This program, the College Corp, is really an unprecedented service and professional development program. We launched it with 46 universities throughout the state of California. That’s what’s UC, CSU, community colleges, and private schools. And what we’re doing is we’re telling a whole new generation of Californians if you’re willing to serve your community, we’re going to help you pay for college so much like the GI Bill where we created opportunities for generations of veterans to have a pathway to the middle class by serving their country and paying for school. In California, if you commit to a year of service, we’re gonna give you $10,000, towards your education, and for Pell Grant students, for our low income students, that’s the difference between them having to take out loans or having to work. And now they get to pursue their passion rather than have to just worry about a paycheck and they get some work in the community doing meaningful work. So the governor wrote an op ed talking about how really this program this this unprecedented service program that we’re doing here in California, it’s a downpayment. It’s a downpayment. On our democracy. It’s not just helping the next generation graduate with less debt. It’s actually how we’re going to give our next generation of leaders the tools to create change in their community, but also to understand and learn how to work together how to solve problems together, and really try to overcome a lot of the division and polarization that we see in our society.
Evan Sanford 05:54
Can you talk more about some measurable results that you’ve seen from any of those three: College Corp, Youth Jobs Corp, or Neighbor to Neighbor?
Josh Fryday 06:04
Yeah, I mean, these are all brand new programs that we’re launching just in the last two years. So they’re all just getting up and running. But we’re seeing the results already. We’re seeing the results in the fact that I have young people who are telling me they would not be able to be in school right now, if it weren’t for the College Corp program, because of the financial help that it gives them. We have Dreamers because this is the first time that a state service program is open to Dreamers, because national service programs that are federally funded, genuinely exclude Dreamers. In California, we change that we have Dreamers who say for the first time, they can work in their community, and they can do something that they’re they’re passionate about. And that’s making a difference in their communities. And that’s, that’s the kind of powerful stories that we’re hearing across the state. And we’re also seeing the impact that it’s having I was down the street from you a couple of weeks ago and Indio where we opened up a pantry in partnership with the fine food bank, which is a phenomenal food bank here in the Inland Empire. And less than a year ago, we had the National Guard, the California National Guard, that was helping the fine food bank, stay operational, and serve the community. When the National Guard left, they are now being supported by over 40 College Corps members. So we can see the impact that these college corps members are having in the community now. And that’s the kind of the impact that we’re seeing all over the state. With climate corps, we’ve engaged literally 10s of 1000s of volunteers to take climate action that’s in planting 10s of 1000s of trees, that’s in helping get making sure that tons of edible food waste doesn’t end up in a in a landfill and further contribute to climate change. And it’s also helping people home harden their homes and clear defensible space to prevent fires all over the state. So we’re seeing the impact right now. It’s significant, it’s real. And it’s having an impact not just on the young people who get to participate in these programs who get to have a job and get to have help paying for school, but also in the communities that they’re helping lift up.
Evan Sanford 08:09
Are you involved with California addressing climate change at both the local and state levels? Aside from those programs? Are there any other initiatives that you are working on?
Josh Fryday 08:20
Well, the idea, the vision of the Climate Action Corp is to empower all Californians to take action around climate change. But really the way we designed it is to ensure that we are both helping meet the state achieve its carbon and greenhouse gas emission goals. So it’s climate goals, but most importantly, helping local communities reach their climate goals. And what what we’re doing with the climate action court is providing the people power for communities like Redlands and communities around California to be able to achieve their climate goals, their their tree planting goals, their urban greening goals or edible food recovery goals, their fire prevention goals. We’re giving them the capacity and the people power to do that. And that’s the main focus of our work. And what we’re seeing is, and it’s and we’re seeing this because we’re seeing the interest in it. Because we know that for instance, with just our Climate Corp program, we had five times as many applications as slots. So there’s a thirst there’s a hunger, people want to step up. People want to take climate action. They want to do it locally in their community to help their community. But it’s very much in furtherance of not just community goals, but also our statewide climate goals.
Evan Sanford 09:37
Are there any cities that you’ve worked with that are setting the bar above maybe some other states that you would want other communities to replicate? Are there any ones that are standing out to you that are like a shining star?
Josh Fryday 09:49
We have lots of shining stars. I will say a couple of things. One of the things that’s really struck me about our climate Corps program, is how it has really appealed to all Californians climate has unfortunately become an issue that’s become very polarized in our country. It’s an issue that gets, it’s become partisan. And yet, Climate Corp has thrived in places like the Redlands places like Fresno places like Butte County, these are not liberal bastions of California, and yet our climate action Corps Fellows have thrived and done incredible work to support the community. And that’s because these communities have used the climate Corps Fellows and engaged volunteers with the climate corps around things that matter to to the individual communities. That’s the model that we’re creating. And I think that’s why it’s being embraced by all parts of California, not just those who are generally considered, you know, climate activist havens.
Evan Sanford 10:52
Going back to your time in the military service, there must be some similarities as to the benefits, even personal. So how would you say your time in the military prepared you for what you’re doing now?
Josh Fryday 11:03
In the military, it’s a very unique opportunity to be placed with people that are from a very different background, very different perspectives all over different parts of the country, where you are forced to work together with each other around a common mission around a common purpose. And you you work together as a unit, you live and die as a unit. And you come to understand that how special that is how important that is how meaningful it is to be part of a team that has a common mission. And you recognize your common humanity, because you have a job to do. And so when I when I think about my time in the military, whether it was working on Operation Tomodachi, which is the largest military, humanitarian aid and disaster relief effort in history, after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, or working Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, what I learned was that there’s nothing better than working on our team, and having that common mission, having that common purpose, even with people that that may think differently, you certainly vote differently than you come from different places. And the question is, is how do we provide that kind of opportunity for more Americans? And I think we can and then we’re doing it here in California. It’s why we’ve created 1000s of opportunities for young people to work together in these different service programs to try to recreate some of that, that that special camaraderie, and that special sense of being in it together and part of something bigger that you get when you serve in the military.
Evan Sanford 12:42
Before you took the job that you’re in now, you were a mayor of a town in California. What made you decide to run for mayor? Why did you want to get involved in politics?
Josh Fryday 12:53
Yeah, it’s a great question. I mean, my desire to be involved in politics, I think stems from my same desire to want to serve in the military and to serve another capacities, which is to want to make a difference in the community to want to be part of shaping the direction of our society, and helping those most in need. And so when I came out of when I got out of the Navy, I came home and I started running a national climate organization, and decided to move on back to my hometown, was not planning to run for office at all. But a city council seat opened up, and I was approached by our local congressperson and, and asked to think about it encouraged to run. And really I saw serving as mayor is just a continuation of, of what I had done in the Navy was how I was serving my country as I was serving my community. And I just feel we’re very, very lucky in America, we are very, very lucky, where we have the chance to actually shape the world around us in a myriad of ways, we have the chance to do that by serving institutions like the military, we had the chance to do that by running for local office. And we have the chance to do that by volunteering, and by and by being a part of civic organizations. And so running for for mayor and sit in the city council in my hometown was was just a continuation of the desire to serve and make a difference. And I think that’s what I think that’s our broader messages in California volunteers in the Office of the Governor is that there are so many ways that Californians can make a difference that Californians can engage. The key is we just need people to step up. But a lot of times we have to create that opportunity to and that’s what we’re trying to do now.
Evan Sanford 14:35
And one last transition question, how did you get the call from the governor that you are going to get this position? This wasn’t a position that existed before is that correct?
Josh Fryday 14:44
Well, so there was actually a position that existed before that just oversaw the AmeriCorps portion of our office, which is, which is sort of the foundation of our office. What Governor Newsom did is is during his campaign he’s he looked around and was seeing and was very, I think both frustrated but also concerned about the polarization and division that he was seeing on the campaign trail. So he actually asked me to help him come up with a plan during his campaign that we rolled out called Uniting Californians in Service was thinking about how to use service as a way to unite our state and to bring communities together. So I knew he was thinking about this, I knew he was very passionate about this. And then as part of that plan, he wanted to create a cabinet level position for service to really demonstrate, I think, his commitment and how much he valued this work. And so after he got elected, that’s when I got got the call, that he was going to take this seriously. You never know when someone runs for something. But I think almost everything he campaigned on, he’s delivered and and this is certainly one of those big promises. He’s delivered in a big way on.
Evan Sanford 15:55
How would you sum up the story of California? We talked in a in a call briefly the other day about your vision. How would you sum up the story of California as it relates to what you’ve built, the impact it’s having on the ground?
Josh Fryday 16:09
Yeah, I think there’s I think there’s a powerful story happening in California right now. And it’s really special. It’s really uplifting. It’s really inspiring. And I, you mentioned the fact that when you take all of our programs, our miracle programs, or Jobs Corps, or climate corps or college corps, that we’re now we’re we’re twice the size of the Peace Corps. Really, the story is within the numbers. And I think of stories, I think of people like Amaya, who was born and raised in Compton, California, and decided to join the climate corps, because she wanted to take this sustainability, education and knowledge that she would get from the program back to her community to equip her community to deal with the climate crisis that we’re all facing. I think about Min who is a foster youth, who went to UC Merced and did one of our service programs tutoring in a low income school, and has now decided to dedicate her life to being a teacher. And I think about all the future teachers that we’re going to inspire with this kind of program. And I think about Augustus, the story of Augustus, who is a student who did a program at a food bank, grew up in a very conservative family, and shared with me how working in a food bank challenged and changed his view of poverty and poor people. And I that inspires me to think what we can accomplish through service to change the polarization in our society, change how people view each other. So I think there’s a macro story of the, the the the investment that we’re making, and the the the kinds of programs. But really, what’s special about California is what we’re seeing on the ground everywhere, which is people are being inspired to step up and take action. We’re seeing it, they’re doing it, and it’s having a real impact on them and and our communities. And that’s just a win win for everybody.
Evan Sanford 18:04
For those that are listening across the country. And they’re excited and inspired about what you’re working on, would you say that what you’re doing can can be done in their community in their state?
Josh Fryday 18:15
Absolutely. And actually, we’re starting to see that. The Washington Post just did an article recently about how after we launched the country’s for statewide climate corps, several other states have now followed suit in creating their own state level climate corp, because we can’t wait for the federal government to step in. Every state should have a college corps, we should be dealing with the student debt crisis in this country and the crisis of our democracy. By helping students pay for school by serving their community. It’s exactly what we should be doing in every single state. We should be creating new jobs corp in every state where we’re helping our justice involved youth, our foster youth, our low income youth, do something that’s meaningful that pays well but also gives them a chance to contribute. So we actually set these programs up with the hope that they would become a model for the country, because we actually need the country to follow what’s happening here. It’s the one of the best ways we think, if not the only way to get our country back on track to deal with the polarization, the division that we all feel is tearing us apart. And we’re seeing it work in California, and we hope it spreads fast across the country.
Evan Sanford 19:19
Well, you’ve left me very inspired. So I thank you, Josh Fryday, California’s Chief Service Officer, thank you so much for spending some time with us.
Josh Fryday 19:28
Thank you. Super fun to be here.
Evan Sanford 19:30
And thank you to our listeners for joining us as well. Until next time, I’m Evan Sanford, and this is “Inside Our Towns.”