One week before the 40th anniversary of the California Conservation Corps, which he started when he was governor before, Gov. Jerry Brown said Thursday that he favors the idea of national, mandatory service for young people.
In an interview at the Capitol, Brown discussed public service, the limitations of “typing on your digital mechanism” and the value of working up a “good sweat.”
Q: When you started the (California Conservation Corps) 40 years ago, you called it a combination Jesuit seminary, Israeli kibbutz and Marine Corps boot camp. I’m curious why that’s appealing.
A: That is a description that is more suggestive than a literal description of what the corps is, but what I wanted to … get at was a type of organization that inspires young people, that is based on fundamental principles – in this case the protection of the environment – and that emphasizes camaraderie, working together on projects that are of lasting significance, whether it’s clearing streams or building trails or helping in disasters.
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The idea is that it’s a civilian corps that is not exactly like a military organization, but it has that same, it has a similar esprit de corps based on a conservation ethic. That’s the idea of it. And I envisioned it as a way of going from high school in an urban setting and encountering California in the forests and wilderness areas and parks and in an environment that is different than just cement and buildings and lights and noise and cars and conveniences. So it was meant to be a passage from adolescence into the beginnings of adulthood by going through a certain rite of passage that this would entail.
Now, that’s the idea, and of course when you build up a state civil service, rule-bound organization, it doesn’t quite turn out as romantic or as visionary. But it still approximates those ideals, and for the tens of thousands of people who have gone through it, it remains a special time in their life. And the idea was of course to have citizens who had this experience and would support the cause of protecting California’s natural beauty and environment over the rest of their lives. That was my idea.
Q: Had you hoped that it would be a bigger program?
A: Well, it turns out that it is expensive, and unlike schools that have huge tax revenues, it’s a heavy lift to get people to put money in the general fund. In fact, it’s come close to being shut down, once under (Pete) Wilson and once under (Arnold) Schwarzenegger. So it’s challenging. It is based on the idea of the old CCC that Roosevelt started during the Depression, and then ended when World War II required the draft and absorbed young men in another way.
So yeah, I would like it bigger. But to have it bigger would be a much bigger commitment. And unlike other big programs, whether they be education or Medi-Cal or human services, those all have powerful organizations that support them and that lobby for them … This is primarily of benefit to the young men and women who are in it, and they’re not part of the power structure, and therefore the funding will always remain relatively modest when it has to compete with other state spending, whether it be prisons and the organizations that represent that institution, or Medi-Cal, where you have hospitals and doctors and SEIU, or K-12, where you have teacher organizations, all that work constantly to maintain and enhance their respective institutions. This one is pretty much dependent on the governor and the few legislators that pick up the baton.
Q: Some people think a national, mandatory period of service for young people would be …
A: I think it would be very helpful, something that would integrate middle class and lower income people. I think that would be very good. But again, you’re talking about a big commitment, and there’s not … a defense contractors association that’s spending money on this, and there’s not, you know, the trucking association or the American Medical Association and all of the other powerful groups that push programs through. This is an idea, and if you compare it with the Peace Corps, the Peace Corps isn’t all that big either relative to the size of the country.
Q: Why would it be a good idea? What do you think you would gain from a national mandatory service program?
A: First, it’d be an integrative experience, which increasingly is very remote, since the country’s being stratified so much by income. So that’s one thing. Also, it helps to instill ideas and understandings of public service and the larger ... issues that go beyond the individual person and that person’s convenience. So it is, it’s a character-building exercise, as well as doing good things for the community. But that, you know, I think it would be helpful. I think a lot of people get a lot out of being in the Army. Now that’s mostly low-income people, but it would be very good for everybody to have the same experience.
Q: Would you view it as military or non-military service?
A: You could do either one. There’s some question whether you can actually conscript people to a public service program. That was a debate. This was discussed in the ’70s. It was a serious idea. But after I think probably in the ’80s and beyond it kind of dropped off. But it (the CCC) is still here, it’s alive and it affects people. So for the individuals that have that experience, they’ll contribute very positively to their communities.
Q: In 1999, you called the CCC the “university of the future.” I’m wondering if you think, is the program intellectually stimulating? It’s not just physical labor?
A: Well, it is supposed to be intellectually stimulating. You know, studying vegetation, rivers, forests, animals, fires. All of that is very important to the well-being of California and to our individual and collective lives. So yes, sitting in a class and turning pages or typing on your digital mechanism is a very limited experience. And it would be well complemented for people to actually get out into one of these spike camps and camp out under the stars and work up a good sweat and do things together that they don’t normally do when they’re in college or working at Chipotle or McDonald’s.
Q: Is there anything different now than there was 40 years ago about the political climate that would make you look at the CCC or its significance differently?
A: Yeah, I think the climate, the horizon is more narrow. I think there was more idealism, there was more a sense of, that something like this could catch on and spread throughout the whole country. Today I think we’re more market-oriented. The decades of privatization have instilled a more consumer-based ethic. And this program, of course, is more of a, it’s a collective undertaking. It’s a group working together.