Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation Blog

  • Growing A Future: A Story Celebrating Service

    Ed. Note: Ghana has the distinction of being the first country in the world to welcome the Peace Corps.  The first group of 51 Volunteers left for service after a departure ceremony in the Rose Garden with President John F. Kennedy on August 28th, 1961.  Since that time, more than 3,700 Americans have served in Ghana.  Today, there are over 160 Americans working on Peace Corps community development initiatives through programs in education, small enterprise development, environment, and health.  Volunteer Sam Frankel is expanding the program to address rural agricultural issues.

    Since 2008, I have served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a small farming community in Ghana, West Africa.  I came to the Peace Corps from a laboratory science background, researching the effects of toxic substances on human health.  After years of reading about environmental and health issues in the developing world, I was looking for a chance to work directly on the problems that people grapple with in their daily lives.

    My town in Ghana is a place where nearly everyone’s livelihood depends on agriculture.  Farmers grow food crops to feed their families and sell cash crops for money to build houses, send their children to school, and pay medical bills.  I joined in the agricultural life of the community with help from my friend and colleague, Mr. Mfodwo, an experienced farmer and community leader.  He is the local organizer of a Habitat for Humanity low-cost housing program and a tireless advocate for housing, education, and agricultural projects.  Mr. Mfodwo and I come from very different backgrounds, but share a desire to improve the welfare of our town.

    I learned in Ghana that although the aspiration to serve is important, actual service requires both strong relationships and perseverance.  Mr. Mfodwo and I work with other interested farmers, seek new agricultural opportunities, and develop relationships with knowledgeable people in other communities.  Ultimately, we were able to establish a center for small-scale food processing projects.  But in order to succeed, we had to experiment, learn from our failures, and deal with many setbacks along the way.  Some of these challenges were very clear, like the cost of a piece of machinery.  Others involved learning how to work across barriers of culture and experience toward a common goal.  At times the challenges seemed overwhelming, and it was only in retrospect that I could appreciate what we’d gained from overcoming these obstacles.

    My Peace Corps service has given me a sense of how difficult it is to foster real change, but also the rewards of being personally involved.  It taught me that service is never abstract or remote, but that it is built on your relationships with other people.  In many ways, the rewards are the relationships you build with other people.  I could only have learned these things by practice, and Peace Corps service has given me that chance.

    Sam Frankel is a biologist from central Maine.  He served as an Environment Volunteer in Ghana from 2008 to 2010, and has recently rejoined Peace Corps Ghana as a volunteer to help expand its agriculture program.

  • Service-Learning with Impact Alabama

    Impact Alabama, a non-profit run by recent college graduates, serves communities across Alabama through a series of learning projects.  The young staff engages college and graduate students through partnerships with 25 of Alabama’s colleges and universities.  These partnerships seek to help college students gain job skills while enhancing their sense of social responsibility and serving Alabama’s communities.

    Impact Alabama focuses on a model of service-learning and partnerships that can be applied to many issues, which allows the organization to create initiatives that meet present needs.  There are four current projects: FocusFirst, SaveFirst, SpeakFirst and CollegeFirst.

    FocusFirst has trained and deployed over 19,000 college volunteers to provide vision screenings for young children in low-income neighborhoods.  Over the past six years the program has provided eye care for approximately 9,000 children with poor vision.

    SaveFirst trains college, graduate, and law students to offer financial literacy information for low-income families.  Since 2006 nearly 800 college students have prepared 4,438 tax returns, resulting in almost $8 million in refunds.

    SpeakFirst engages inner city youth in a multidisciplinary debate program.  Through training, competition, internships and scholarship guidance, students sharpen their debate skills and increase their opportunity to attend and finance college.

    CollegeFirst addresses Alabama’s poor achievement scores in math and science.  Volunteers tutor and mentor students who are enrolled in or preparing for Advanced Placement courses.

    This month, the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation is spotlighting individuals and organizations that are serving communities across the country and around the world.  We applaud Impact Alabama for its innovative model that simultaneously prepares young graduates for civic-minded careers and addresses local community needs.

    Do you know of an individual or organization that is creating a new model of service?  Click here and tell us your story.

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

  • Growing Good Ideas in St. Louis

    As part of our celebration of service this month, we commend the visionary efforts of Jay Swoboda and RJ Koscienlniak that help catalyze innovation in Missouri.  Swoboda and Koscielniak recognize the importance of creativity and innovation in addressing our greatest community challenges.  With this understanding, in 2010 Swoboda and Koscielniak opened the doors of Sprout – a social enterprise accelerator, located in downtown St. Louis.

    Even before the 2008 recession, the loss of manufacturing jobs in the Northeast and Midwest left many of the cities in decline.  Faced with the challenge of a changing job market, Swoboda and Koscielniak recognized the opportunity to empower the citizens and engage their community to do better.  They created Sprout to offer local startup companies the essential tools for inspiration, collaboration, and innovation.  The founders believe that there is space for business to “do good.”  Sprout is a resource for startups that are dedicated to the “triple bottom line” – doing business for people, planet and profit.

    Business incubators, or accelerators, are popping up all over the country.  These incubators are designed to help small businesses mitigate some of the initial costs by sharing office space, IT staff, and other high-cost assets.  In addition to providing the standard accelerator amenities, Sprout offers support and training for community-minded and mission-driven ventures.

    Swoboda and Koscielniak, like many other innovators across the country, promote local businesses that are rooted in the authentic identity of place.  Sprout is located in downtown St. Louis with the goal of boosting the local economy and providing entrepreneurs with the inspiration of the bustling city.  Swoboda and Koscielniak envision an environment of cross-sector innovation; where landlords, investors, municipalities, and entrepreneurs support each other and market St. Louis as a city willing to take chances on good ideas.

    It is the belief in our potential that is rooted in President Obama’s message of “Winning the Future.”  The message challenges us all to confront these economic times by strengthening our local economy and accelerating ideas that produce outcomes that reinvest in the community.  Sprout is accepting this challenge by empowering the citizens of St. Louis to become social entrepreneurs.

    Do you know of organizations or individuals in your community that are rising to this challenge?  Share your story with us.

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

  • Big, Bold, and Fast: A little Peace Corps history on its 50th Anniversary

    JFK-Shriver photo

    August 9, 1962 on the South Lawn of the White House where President John F. Kennedy delivered remarks to new Peace Corps Volunteers. March 1, 2011. (by Peace Corps and John F. Kennedy Presidential Library)

    In accepting the presidential nomination, John Kennedy promised “invention, innovation, imagination, decision.”  Thirty-nine days after taking office, he established the Peace Corps by executive order and began to keep that promise.

    The Peace Corps began for me when a call came from Millie Jeffrey, a Democratic National Committee member and active colleague in the Kennedy campaign’s Civil Rights Section (where I was deputy to Sargent Shriver).  With great excitement, she told me about Kennedy’s extemporaneous talk she had heard at 2 a.m., October 14, 1960 to thousands of students, faculty, and town people waiting for him in front of the University of Michigan’s Student Union.  Challenging the students, he had asked them if they were ready to spend years serving in Asia, Africa, or Latin America.  Stirred by his question, Michigan students, including Millie’s daughter, had taken around a petition saying yes, they were ready – nearly one thousand had signed.

    Now the students wanted to present it personally to Kennedy.  Millie asked me to help arrange their doing so.  The first staff man she had called showed little interest, but when she finally reached Ted Sorensen, he liked the idea and arranged the meeting.  When the President learned of the petition, before seeing it, he told Ted Sorensen to start drafting a major speech proposing a Peace Corps.  He gave that talk to many thousands at the Cow Palace in San Francisco on November 2, 1960.  Almost everywhere Kennedy went in the last week of the campaign, he was asked about the Peace Corps.  In his election eve broadcast he included the promise of a Peace Corps.

  • Stories Celebrating Service

    Over the past two years, President Obama has recognized that service is not separate from the national agenda, but a crucial part of it.  This month, two separate events – the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps and the Points of Light event honoring President George H.W. Bush’s contribution to the modern service movement – bring the spotlight onto service in an unprecedented way.  To recognize the inspiring work that is being done all over the country and the world, the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation will use our blog to celebrate service throughout the month of March. 

    On March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order establishing the Peace Corps a mere two months after taking office.  The Peace Corps was led by Sergeant Shriver, and has become an enduring symbol of our nation’s commitment to service at home and abroad.  In the past 50 years, over 200,000 current and former Peace Corps Volunteers have encouraged progress, created opportunity, and fostered mutual respect and understanding in nearly 140 countries.  They have worked on education, agriculture, business, and many other projects in communities around the world.  Their commitment to international development and making a difference has and continues to be an enduring legacy. 

    In our increasingly interconnected world, the service and the mission of the Peace Corps are more relevant today than ever.  Returned volunteers bring a deeper understanding of other cultures back to their home communities in the United States, and the lasting accomplishments of their work continue to strengthen our relationships with countries around the world. 

    Similarly, President George H. W. Bush established service as a priority in the White House, appointing Gregg Petersmeyer to lead the office.  President Bush started the “thousand points of light,” highlighting a person or organization daily that was making a difference in its community as the “point of light.”  This led to the creation of the Points of Light Institute, an organization that inspires, equips, and mobilizes people to be “at the center of transforming their communities.”  With over 30,000,000 volunteer hours logged in the last year, valued at more than $626 million in human capital, Points of Light’s HandsOn Network is demonstrating the power of service every day.  President Bush said it eloquently in his 1991 State of the Union speech: “We can find meaning and reward by serving some higher purpose than ourselves, a shining purpose, the illumination of a Thousand Points of Light.  And it is expressed by all who know the irresistible force of a child's hand, of a friend who stands by you and stays there, a volunteer's generous gesture, an idea that is simply right.”

    To celebrate both of these milestones, during the month of March, this office will use our blog to highlight the stories and experiences of individuals who have dedicated their lives to service, as well as the service organizations that make their work possible.

    Check back daily to read stories of great service in communities around the country and the world.  And we hope you will share your story with us.

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

  • A Call to Action: Leveraging Private Sector Support for the National HIV/AIDS Strategy

    Editor's Note: This post was originally posted on the ONAP blog.

    When President Obama released the National HIV/AIDS Strategy in July 2010, he said, “The Federal government can’t do this alone, nor should it.  Success will require the commitment of governments at all levels, businesses, faith communities, philanthropy, the scientific and medical communities, educational institutions, people living with HIV, and others.” 

    Clearly, success at achieving our aggressive goals in the Strategy depends not only on Federal leadership, but new investments and new partnerships from all parts society.  We know that some of our biggest successes in fighting HIV/AIDS have come about because of private sector initiatives, and we’ve called on businesses and foundations to provide that next level of leadership by stepping up their efforts in a few targeted areas.  We want to hear about your successful partnerships and new ideas for working together.

    Priority areas where private sector partners can help us to achieve the National HIV/AIDS Strategy goals are:

    • Bridging the gap in access to HIV medications:  Over the past year, a growing challenge has arisen as an increasing number of people living with HIV are placed on waiting lists for state operated AIDS Drug Assistance Programs (ADAP).  Most states have managed to avoid imposing these waiting lists, but nearly 6,500 people in 11 states are currently on waiting lists.  Even states without these lists have had to make difficult decisions such as to restrict the scope of drug coverage available or to limit the income standards of people who qualify for assistance. The Federal government has a role to play in responding to this situation and states must remain committed to investing in these programs, but we need the continued commitment from our private sector partners to weather the economic downturn that is afflicting many parts of the country.  Pharmaceutical companies and related charitable organizations have maintained patient assistance programs that provide critical aid to those in need.  We are appreciative that these companies have maintained and increased their commitments in this area.  Foundations have also helped to support community efforts to bolster state investments in programs providing HIV medications. 
    • Ensuring that the HIV community and people living with HIV take full advantage of the benefits of the Affordable Care Act:  The Affordable Care Act will greatly expand access to insurance coverage in 2014, and there are already numerous immediate benefits for people living with HIV and others.  Private sector partners can help the HIV community work through the implementation phase by helping people living with HIV and the HIV care system learn about the improvements in insurance coverage and critical steps to be taken both to ensure that no new gaps in coverage appear as people gain new coverage. Private sector partners also can ensure that HIV clinics, clinicians, and services providers are adapting to and engaging in the newly expanded insurance system.
    • Improving understanding, reducing stigma, and communicating actionable information to the public, especially among most affected communities: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other Federal agencies have a role to play in operating social marketing initiatives and other programs to improve understanding about HIV.  At the same time, the private sector has unique experience, expertise, and assets to bring to bear.  As we focus on the populations and communities at greatest risk, private sector partners can help to deliver action-oriented information on issues such as prevention, testing, and treatment, including promoting early entry into clinical care for people living with HIV and increasing knowledge about HIV and reducing stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS.  The private sector can also fill an important need by strengthening critical community institutions and supporting capacity building of community based organizations within the communities most disproportionately impacted by HIV, such as within local organizations serving Black and Latino gay men, youth (including homeless youth and LGBT youth), substance users, and women of color.  
    • Supporting innovative partnerships in the cities and communities with the most cases of HIV:  CDC has begun important work in the twelve jurisdictions in the United States with the greatest number of people living with AIDS.  HHS and HUD are also considering a variety of complimentary new initiatives to build on CDC’s work in order to better integrate all of the HIV resources within a community.  This project has relevance not only for these communities, which are responsible for roughly 44% of the epidemic in the US, but it will teach us valuable lessons to be applied to our collective work with other states and jurisdictions across the country.  Private sector partners can support this effort many ways, such as helping community-based partners engage with local government partners on this initiative, coordinating current and new prevention and care efforts in these communities, partnering on outreach efforts, and conducting evaluations and efforts to transfer lessons so that other areas of the country can benefit from the experiences in these high prevalence jurisdictions.  This will also compliment other work of the private sector in responding to high levels of unmet need in other communities, such as in the South.

    The National HIV/AIDS Strategy provides a moment of opportunity to make big things happen.  Business and labor partners, foundations, and other charitable organizations have long made critically important contributions to support individuals and communities affected by HIV/AIDS, often by working with governments to test new ideas or expand successful programs.  Over the coming months, the Administration will be looking for opportunities to partner with the private sector to achieve the goals of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy. 

    So, we want to hear from you – the innovative leaders in this space who are undertaking new initiatives to support the implementation of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy.  Tell us about your successful partnerships and new ideas for working together at

    Melody C. Barnes is an Assistant to the President and Director of the Domestic Policy Council