Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation Blog

  • "All Together Now: A Celebration of Service"

    Throughout the month of March, the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation is celebrating stories of service.  Last night, the Points of Light Institute paid tribute to President George Herbert Walker Bush, America’s 41st President and the man who inspired the modern service movement.

    Throughout his life, President Bush has promoted the notion that every day, in communities across America, countless ordinary individuals and community organizations are hard at work volunteering their time and skills to help make a difference in the lives of others.  He described this hands-on movement as “a vast galaxy of people and institutions working together to solve problems in their own backyard.” 

    During his Administration, President Bush created the first ever Cabinet-level position dedicated solely to service and established the Daily Points of Light Award to highlight individuals making a difference in their communities.  President Bush called the nation to service, and in response, the Points of Light Foundation, which later became the Points of Light Institute, was created.  Thanks to the work of President and Mrs. Bush, many Americans have come to recognize the voluntary action of citizens as a cornerstone of our democracy. 

    President Obama continues to carry on this legacy of service.  Within the first 100 days of his Administration, he made expanding national service a Presidential priority by signing into law the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act.  The landmark legislation reauthorizes and expands AmeriCorps and establishes the Social Innovation Fund.  Two key ideas promoted by the Act – rewarding results and demonstrating the impact of national service programs – have resonated with communities and funders around the country.  Since the signing of the Act, there’s been an emergence of new models of civic and corporate engagement and a fresh focus on evaluation and metrics for success. 

    Service is not separate from our achieving our national priorities, but integral to it.  In fact, in times of challenge, we are best when we turn to community for the solutions rather than away from it.  Through the creativity and ingenuity of engaged citizens, we can create a future that allows our children to prosper. 

    Last night, the Points of Light Institute honored President and Mrs. Bush for their remarkable leadership and dedication to service.  The public event in Washington D.C. brought together all of the living former Presidents, many senior Administration officials, and thousands of people from around the country who have helped their communities through service.  Tune into NBC on Monday, March 28th to watch the event.

    The Points of Light Institute is also collecting inspiring stories from around the country.  Share yours on their online Tribute Wall.

    Sonal Shah is the Director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

  • Sharing Solutions Through Service: A Story Celebrating Service

    Sarah Lopez Peace Corps

    Lopez teaching her students in El Salvador during her service as a Peace Corps Volunteer . March 17, 2011. (by Peace Corps)

    Ed. Note: The Peace Corps program in El Salvador began in 1962 and is was one of the agency's earliest posts.  More than 2,100 Americans have served in El Salvador coordinating with local municipalities, NGOs, and community groups to develop better water systems, make health and sanitation improvements, provide environmental education, and assist municipal development projects.  Sara served as a Municipal Development Volunteer in El Salvador from 2003-2006. 

    When I first arrived in Candelaria de la Frontera, El Salvador, I frequently wondered, “Why can’t this country just be more like the U.S.?” Though my family is of Hispanic heritage, I had usually shied away from being labeled as Hispanic and did not regularly embrace many parts of Latino culture.  It took me about a year to understand that I had to accept the country with all of its idiosyncrasies, and that if I was going to be there as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I had better work my hardest to make my two-year commitment worth it.  So I began meeting with different community groups, helping to strengthen their internal functions and facilitating communication with the local city hall. I organized youth camps, giving many children in my community the opportunity to travel outside of their village for the first time while facilitating educational experiences.  

    I soon realized that I loved being a Peace Corps Volunteer, and I loved learning about Latino culture, appreciating it, and embracing it.  I decided to stay in the country after my Peace Corps service to manage a service-learning program at a private high school in El Salvador, whose students would become future leaders in many fields.  The program taught students the value of service by helping them become development workers who learned more about their country by doing hands-on work. On several occasions, I used my Peace Corps community for service-learning activities, and my students led youth camps for children from other Volunteers’ communities. 

    Working with Salvadorans across the economic spectrum allowed me to learn about Salvadoran society, culture, and different paths to community development.  Experiencing the daily obstacles to community improvement in the Peace Corps, and facilitating a student’s first exposure to the stark realities of their country, made me more determined to learn about solutions to poverty; I pursued a Master’s degree in public affairs and learned about solutions on a broader scale. I am now a proud federal employee who strongly believes in the ability of government to provide the foundation for community-level initiatives to address poverty. 

    I consider the Peace Corps as my launching point for my career in public service, and I am grateful for the grassroots experience that continues to shape my thoughts and actions. 

    Sara R. Lopez is a returned Peace Corps Volunteer and a Program Specialist in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and Partnerships with Peace Corps. 

  • Transformation Starts From Within: A Story Celebrating Service

    I went to law school in California planning to make the world a safer place by incarcerating criminals.  During my first week, I volunteered to teach incarcerated youth about the law, in all honesty, because I wanted to meet “juvenile delinquents.”

    This service experience changed my life. 

    I realized that underneath the shells of hardened “juvenile delinquents” were kids.  Kids who had grown up believing that by the time they were 18 or 21 they would be in prison or dead.

    Kids who over and over again would tell me: “If only.”

    • “If only I knew how much trouble I would get into.”
    • “If only someone had cared about me.”
    • “If only I had been given a chance to do something good for community…I wouldn’t be here.”

    I hadn’t expected to care.  But, their stories began to haunt me.  I found myself wishing that someone would listen to their ideas and do something to help.  Then it hit me – I should stop wishing and start doing.

    So I asked them, “What would you do to help other kids from ending up here?”  They said: 1. Teach kids about the consequences of crime to help them learn how to make better choices; 2. Connect them with a positive role model to help them be successful; and 3. give them a chance to give back to their communities to help them show it’s not too late for “juvenile delinquents” to change.

    These youth wrote letters of recommendations for seed funding to start Fresh Lifelines for Youth (FLY). Today, over 10 years later, with 100 volunteers and 26 staff, FLY provides the programs they recommended: legal education, mentoring, and leadership training for kids in the juvenile justice system and those at-risk for system involvement.  The kids who helped design FLY were right; their suggestions worked.  FLY effectively helps kids start transforming their lives for less than 1/10 the cost of incarceration.

    At FLY, the youth we seek to serve continue to be our greatest teachers, reminding us that those we want to help have the greatest insights into what they need and an incredible capacity to serve as part of the solution.  Personally, I am mindful that being a part of an organization that is all about transformation began, first, with my own.

    Christa Gannon is the Founder and Executive Director of Fresh Lifelines for Youth (FLY)

  • The View From My Shoes: A Story Celebrating Service

    Shalala Peace Corps

    Shalala, pictured here with her students, served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran from 1962 to 1964. March 15, 2011. (by Peace Corps)

    The captivating power of instant communications, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, or the 24-hour news cycle, creates the illusion that we are more “plugged in” than we really are.  Jolting images of events taking place around the world awaken our sense of compassion and desire for justice.  We wish there was something we could do.

    Awareness and concern are good first steps.  But to truly grapple with the harsh realities that too many people face today, we have to step into their place and literally see the view from their shoes.  This is a Peace Corps Volunteer’s vantage point and strength.  To “walk the walk” is more than helping to alleviate the painful effects of poverty, conflict, and social discrimination—it’s about advancing the sustaining power of culture and the uplifting complexity of the human spirit.

    As a new college graduate, I felt completely primed and empowered to join the Peace Corps as a Volunteer in Iran in 1962.  I didn’t realize that the greatest lesson of my life was just beginning.  Two years teaching English in a remote area taught me more invaluable lessons than anything else that has happened afterwards.  Daily life became transformative just by eating the same food, washing in the same water, and using the same transportation as the people I lived and worked with everyday.

    I learned resourcefulness, resilience, and immense respect for a community that gradually learned to accept and trust me as well.  The dean of the school where I taught had never worked with a female teacher before; he didn’t quite know how to deal with me at first.  Over time I became less of an outsider and more of a valued contributor, and while all my ideas weren’t embraced, many were adapted to fit a distinctly local framework. 

    What can one person really do?  More than you can imagine.  Lasting change is best accomplished by small, meaningful steps that accrue and are reinforced over time.  And change is never one-sided.  By helping to improve the quality of life for others, we create a more meaningful life for ourselves.

    I tell students that to really learn about the world, they need to be part of it.  Service shapes our values, harnesses our passions, and, most definitely, makes a real difference.

    As we celebrate 50 years of the Peace Corps Volunteers, I invite everyone who is ready to “walk the walk” and make a difference in others’ lives to step up and see the view from their shoes.

    Donna Shalala served as the Secretary of Health and Human Services for eight years under President Clinton and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bush in June 2008. She is currently serving as the President of the University of Miami.

  • Healthy Markets, Healthy Communities: A Story Celebrating Service

    Across the country, many low-income urban and rural communities live without access to the healthy foods that families need to thrive.  These areas where residents face economic and social barriers to affordable, fresh, whole foods are known as “food desserts.”  At the same time, small farmers are struggling to make ends meet.  Wholesome Wave, a Connecticut-based nonprofit, is seeking to nourish neighborhoods and support family farms by directly connecting consumers to fresh foods. 

    The Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation had the opportunity to talk with Wholesome Wave.  The organization is built on a series of local partnerships and provides solutions that address the nutritional needs of families and build local markets.  The staff works with farmers markets and organizations to connect a broad base of consumers to farmers.  This three year old organization tells a story of two unlikely partners joining to create a scalable model that addresses the specific needs of people in communities across the country.

    In 2008, Michel Nischan, a sustainable food chef, and Gus Schumacher, a former Under Secretary of the USDA, joined to found Wholesome Wave.  A professional chef and restaurateur, Nischan adapted his passion for regional cuisine to meet the strict dietary needs of his young sons who had been diagnosed with diabetes.  He recognized that the difficulty of achieving a healthy diet for his sons must be amplified for someone without the same elevated access to nutritious foods.

    Schumacher’s activism around food access began when he was delivering boxes of pears from his family farm.  During the trip, one box fell off the truck.  When Schumacher and his brother returned to pick up the fallen fruit, a woman and two young sons were picking the bruised pears out of the gutter.  When Schumacher asked why she would be collecting this unwanted fruit, the mother explained that her food stamps weren’t enough to buy the fruits and vegetables her family needed.

    The Nischan-Schumacher collaboration was the first of many partnerships that support Wholesome Wave.  The organization works with third-party funders to double the purchasing power of SNAP dollars (formerly known as food stamps) when used to buy fresh food at farmers markets.  This partnership incentivizes food assistance recipients to choose healthy options without any extra cost.  Another project is to develop public-private partnerships with businesses, social services, and public spaces to create Healthy Food Hubs.  These are neighborhoods that provide both access to food and information about improving healthy habits.

    Since its start in 2008, Wholesome Wave has expanded its programming and reach.  The organization has scaled its services from 12 markets in 4 states to over 160 markets in 20 states this year.  We applaud Wholesome Wave for the inspiring work they do to serve low-income families and local farmers.

    How have you connected your passion with serving your community?  Share your story with us.

    Divya Kumaraiah is the Policy Assistant to the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

  • Understanding the Culture of Questions: A Story Celebrating Service

    Ed. Note:The Peace Corps program in Mongolia opened in 1991 and has hosted nearly 900 American volunteers over the past twenty years.  Volunteer Robert Galloway arrived in Mongolia in 2010 to teach English.

    As an English teacher, I’m eager to introduce my students to question words early.

    “Yagaad” is Mongolian for “why,” and I enjoy hearing it because such a word really deserves at least two syllables.  For a question that so rarely has an answer, just as interesting to me is when it is asked.  At home, it was a steady stream of family and friends asking me why I was going all the way to Mongolia for two years.  Now that I’m here, the most common conversation I have is, “Do you have a wife, Rob?”  “No,” and without a breath in between, “Yagaad?”  I used to be taken aback by this; the question sounding to my ears like, “Why, what’s wrong with you?”

    My reflections on service are usually based on the small and trivial aspects of my exchanges in Mongolia and the natural human curiosity we hold for one another.  In my ninth month here, “yagaad” has slowly been replaced by “why” in my conversations with students, signaling to me that they now expect and desire my answers to be in English. They’ve stopped asking about a wife and started asking about why America celebrates Martin Luther King Day, why I enjoy reading so much, why American families live in the ways that we do.

    One of my ninth graders surprised me early on a Saturday morning by knocking on my door: “Good morning teacher, may I chop your wood for you?”

    “Really?”  I asked, more than a little relieved for the help.

    “Yes, I would like to talk and practice English with you.”

    “Sure, why not?” I said.

    What I’ve come to know is that the Peace Corps is a time when “Why?” becomes “Why not?” both for Volunteers and the people and communities we aim to serve. Each encounter is full of possibility, and the frequency with which I get to answer these questions about myself, and ask them of others, is a small and everyday measure of my impact here—the world becoming a slightly smaller classroom and all of us as students becoming a little more curious about our neighbors.

    Why not?

    Robert Galloway, 24, is from Wayzata, Minnesota, and serves as an English teacher with the Peace Corps in Mongolia