Interview with Chris Myers Asch

Chris Myers Asch is only 33 years old, but already he?s made a difference in the everyday affairs of Americans. First he worked with Teach for America in Northern Mississippi and then afterwards, realizing the impact he could make on the gulf state he co-founded the Sunflower County Freedom Project. He stayed there until he reached a crossroads. The concept for the first US Public Service Academy began to take off, not only in the media but also in Congress. A bill, co-sponsored by Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Arlen Spector (R-PA) will be introduced within the coming weeks.

We sat down with Mr. Asch on 2/21 to find out more about his concept after first learning about the US Public Service Academy from a friend. It?s idea so crazy it could be genius, an idea that might just be the most necessary thing for America?s youth and future generations of American public servants.

The academy would provide an education for 5,000 students free of charge. It would cost taxpayers roughly $200 million per year. Potential students would be nominated for this academy in a process similar to that of the military academies and once enrolled they would be required to study abroad, complete a summer of emergency response training, and have internships with either military or non-profit institutions. Inxchange for the free education, graduating students would be required to payback the country with five years of public service.

SO: Let?s just jump right into it. You mentioned earlier that you live in Cincinnati and commute once a month to DC. Is that for meetings how does that work out?

CMA: Well it?s not much of an office. Basically it?s donated space in a firm. We don?t have a staff. I?m the only one who works full time on this because of the lack of finances. The office stays empty and I go to pick up the mail and take meetings.

SO: What?s the status of the Public Service Academy in Congress?

CMA: It?s about to be reintroduced to Congress and we wanted to get a marker down to establish the bill during the last session of Congress. But the plan was always to reintroduce it this year with hearings and take action. If all goes well it?ll be introduced next week or the following week. Sometime in the next two weeks.

SO: The bill is sponsored by Hillary and Arlen Spector. What?s that experience been like to have them jump on board.

CMA: We?re pleased with Senators Clinton and Spector. We were trying for months and months to get people?s attention in Congress. But we have no money, so it?s been tough to get their attention. We don?t have much clout. It was Senator Clinton, really, she read about us in the Washington Post about a couple of yahoos and the article said we were nothing more than a website and a couple of advisors. For eight months we were pounding the doors of politicians and I can?t tell you the number of times they tell us to come back when you have more staff or more money or whatever. A lot of politicians are constantly looking over their shoulders for cues and all that stuff because they don?t want to take a risk. The one politician who has been the least risk adverse in our experience was Clinton. She instructed her staff to find us and we didn?t go after her. We got a call from her staff and they said she loves the idea and it?s something we should do. I?m not committed to anyone in 2008 and her public image is of someone very poll driven and cautious and certainly not a risk taker and for us, my interaction with her, it?s been the exact opposite.

SO: How?s it going with the rest of Congress?

CMA: Shawn [Raymond], my partner in this and the Sunflower County Freedom Project, and I wonder where we?d be if Spector or Clinton hadn?t taken the risk. We?re trying to get more Senate co-sponsors and a number of them have expressed interest.

SO: So that?s politicians for you. One thing that I assumed about the academy was that it was going to be training the next generation of political leaders, but based upon early looks at the proposed curriculum it?s public service across the board: teachers, park rangers, cops, etc.

CMA: It?s actually not political. Students wouldn?t be allowed to be placed in partisan positions. This is really about developing non-partisans public servants. There is such a thing as non-partisanship, people who serve the country as Americans and not as Democrats or Republicans. I come from a family of public servants. My dad was a Foreign Service officer. My mom is a civilian doctor at Walter Reed. I come from a heritage of public service, where you do what your country needs you to do. And we want to reinvigorate that. When I was going to college, no one went into public service. That wasn?t where the action was. You didn?t go into government because that was boring. You worked on Wall Street or someplace similar. And that?s grown out of the post-Watergate and Vietnam era. It?s really destructive. It?s undermining our ability to handle day to day institutions.

SO: So when did the light bulb go off for this idea of yours.

CMA: It?s Katrina that ultimately drove me to write this thing up and push this thing. The aftermath of Katrina is all the example we need for what happens when you don?t demand excellence in public servants. Well, what happens? Well, people can die during catastrophes.

SO: Can you talk about the circumstances of going from what must have seemed like one of those crazy ideas into what is slowly turning into a reality?

CMA: It was an idea that bounced around in my head for a while, but it was a crazy idea and like all crazy ideas you never follow up. In the fall of 2005 with Katrina I was feeling rage and frustration of not being able to do more. I was living in North Mississippi and feeling our country should do better and can do better and it wasn?t doing better. I just felt that that fall this was the time. If America was ever going to recognize how important we rely on public institutions, post-Katrina was going to be it. It wasn?t an empiphany so much as it was a growing sense that we should get America to recommit. This was my piece of a larger puzzle.

SO: It?s hard to imagine that it?s been coming up on two years for Hurricane Katrina and everyone is pretending the city is okay because The Saint?s almost made it to the Super Bowl, Mardi Gras is happening. But if you look at it I just read a report that said only 50 of the 150 schools have reopened and only 500 of the 5000 doctors are practicing in the city.

CMA: It?s true. That?s what we want to do with the public service academy is create an institution that for lack of a better word makes public service cool. If you?re smart and dedicated enough we?ll give you the privilege of serving our country for five years. We honor military servants and we should. They make incredible sacrifices and so do public servants. We should ratchet up the expectations of the leadership.

SO: And so then what happened after kicking around this idea? How did it start to become a reality?

CMA: Well, Shawn was my roommate in Teach for America and now he?s a lawyer in Houston. I came up with a proposal and sent it to him. And we kept working on it, showing it to family and friends. By the beginning of last year we had a proposal to send out to people we didn?t know. We started working it and we both were work full-time so this was something we did when we could. You know making calls, taking meetings, building up a network of supporters and we managed to get this to the right people. Then it was trying to get us interviews with the media and get us endorsements with politicians. It?s been a slow process. I wouldn?t say really methodical, but we have strategies and we keep throwing it out there and some of it is bound to stick.

SO: Have you been surprised how quickly things have developed?

CMA: It?s gone much more quickly than I would have hoped. If you told me last January that in one year we?d have a bill on Congress and endorsed by prominent people and sponsorships. I couldn?t conceive of that, but day to day it?s tough. But we have come so far. There is an annual event each February and they honor congressional leaders and I went to DC for that in 2006 because I heard about it. And it was my first trip to DC for this idea. I didn?t know anyone. I tried to talk to people about this idea, but everyone?s peddling something. There wasn?t much happening at this meeting. I went to the same event last week and it was a different story. I sat next to Hillary Clinton and she talked about the Service Academy. Afterwards everyone came up to me and was like I can?t believe how much we had achieved in a year.

SO: So what?s it going to take to make this a reality? And not just a proposal floating around Congress.

CMA: Obviously we have to get 51 Senators, a president on board and 234 congressmen. Congress will respond if the American people want this. If we can get this idea out to those thousands upon thousands of Americans they?ll see it?s a worthwhile idea. High school kids, service veterans, parents, college kids and get them to push their representatives with this idea.

SO: And that?s the million dollar question.

CMA: Right. How do you get a big idea to spread to lots of people. Everyone knows Anna Nicole Smith, unfortunately there isn?t enough fascination with ideas like ours. The main challenge is to raise money and get the idea out there. We need to raise money for this idea for the long term. People are willing to support it verbally and financially if it?s something that is financially viable on its own. We?re not looking for handouts. After Teach for America Shawn and I started a program called the Sunflower Freedom Program for middle school and high school kids. Once this idea started taking off at the end of last summer I left to start working on this full-time.

SO: So what comes next in the immediate future for you?

CMA: We want to get the bill introduced. And we have a conference up in Wisconsin. It?s a big idea incubator, the Big Wing Idea and they gave us a grant to come up there with our board members and task members who have been working on this. We want to create a blueprint of what it will look like on the ground, so that we?ll be ready when Congress is.

SO: The blueprint you mean the proposal to convert Walter Reed Medical when it closes to be the academy campus.

CMA: There is a big scramble to take control of it and we think it would be a perfect spot that would benefit the local community. Our kids would be out in the community. DC is a great location cause there are potential faculty who could spend a year or two on sabbatical with us and those kinds of people are all over the DC area at non-profits and think tanks. But we?re open to anywhere, the bill doesn?t specify a location.

SO: Can you talk about the curriculum or at least give an idea of what people could expect this college to teach their students.

CMA: In terms of curriculum we?re still solidifying that but we have some rough plans. We?re still in the process of discussing and debating them. Students would have a broad liberal arts degree. They would be required to take civics and international education classes, mastery of a foreign language; there would be a common core experience academically. And then they could go on to their majors along with a service learning concentration. Their work would be in their field that they declare. Law enforcement, emergency management, education and so forth. There would be several majors to choose from all based upon some type of public service field.

SO: Sounds excellent. Chris thanks for taking the time.

CMA: No thank you. I appreciate helping to get the word out. This is not a one or two person show here. We?ve gotten all kinds of support but we need everything we can get.

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