Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation Blog

  • 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

  • Empowering America’s Entrepreneurs: Startup America

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

    For the past 50 years at SBA, we’ve always been proud to serve not only “Main Street” small businesses, but also the small, high-growth firms that drive the lion’s share of net new job creation each year in America.  In fact, SBA played a significant role in the early years of firms like Intel, FedEx and Apple.  Today, through a new initiative called Startup America, the entire Administration is joining us in supporting these firms in order to help drive innovation, competitiveness, and good jobs here at home.

    What is Startup America?

    Startup America is a nationwide effort to increase the number of successful startups and to help promising young companies grow to the next level.  It’s a call to action for leaders in business, academia, the investment community, and the nonprofit sector – and entrepreneurs themselves – to do more to support entrepreneurship.  Startup America will push for more investment in promising startups, more mentoring of entrepreneurs, more commercialization of new discoveries, and fewer regulatory barriers to innovation.

    One of our first steps will be to infuse up to $1 billion over the next five years in underserved communities and emerging industries through a new Impact Investment Fund.  This fund will be based on SBA’s Small Business Investment Company program that just had a record year.

    If you watched the State of the Union, you may have heard of a firm that benefited from the SBIC program: Center Rock, Inc., in Berlin, Pennsylvania.  In 2005, an SBIC invested $4 million in Center Rock, which helped the company grow from 20 to 70 employees and shift from distributing to manufacturing of drilling equipment.  Last summer, one of Center Rock’s drill bits helped rescue the 33 Chilean miners.

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    Today, there are thousands more entrepreneurs and small, high-growth firms like Center Rock that are poised to grow and create more good American jobs.  They’re ready to “do big things.”  If you’re one of those entrepreneurs, I encourage you to talk with your local SBA office about how we can help give you the tools you need to succeed… and keep an eye out for new Startup America initiatives being rolled out in the coming weeks and months.

    Karen Mills is the Administrator of the Small Business Administration.

  • Leadership 18

    On January 19, 2011, I had the honor of joining a discussion with the members of Leadership 18.  Leadership 18 is a coalition of CEOs from the largest and most respected non-profits from across the nation.  The coalition was created over thirty years ago to enable strategic leadership and inspire collective action in the field of human development non-profits.

    We discussed a variety of issues including building capacity and leadership within organizations, scaling good ideas, increasing engagement and achieving results.  We also discussed this office’s agenda and the White House Council for Community Solutions.  It was an interesting and engaging discussion with some good ideas on how the federal government could benefit from coalition’s experiences in communities across the country and potential opportunities for partnerships.  

    The Leadership 18 coalition includes partners such as AARP, American Red Cross, Goodwill, Boys and Girls Club of America, and YMCA.  Collectively, the partners serve millions of people and manage $44 billion in funds.  In 2008, the coalition expanded its mission to include leveraging their collective power to influence policy, service delivery, and public opinion about the most pressing human development issues.

    The member organizations of the coalition address a wide range of human and health services.  Priorities for the coalition include Gulf Coast long-term recovery efforts, economic and financial self-sufficiency, and health and human services.  The coalition is great forum for the government to better understand the challenges and opportunities faced by members, many of whom are key service providers in communities across the country.

    Leadership 18 organizations have already been great partners on some important Administration initiatives, including the First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden’s focus on military families.  They have helped effectively harness the power of large national service organizations to deliver necessary services to military families.  Leadership 18 has also provided a united platform to leverage organizations in efforts to support Gulf Coast recovery efforts and fight the childhood obesity epidemic, a cause the First Lady has been focusing on with the “Let’s Move” Campaign.

    Human and health services delivery is critically important in helping communities improve the economic security and healthcare for, and provide access, training, and education to children and families.  Leadership 18 has already shown scale is possible.  We hope to continue to work with them and many others in continuing to make programs more effective and impactful.

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

  • Celebrating MLK Day with City Year

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

    Today, I am joining hundreds of volunteers at Intermediate School 292 in Brooklyn as part of City Year’s celebration of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. I look forward to seeing the hundreds of energetic and idealistic City Year corps members who are always an inspiration.

    I helped to launch City Year New York after September 11 as part of our City's healing, and was honored to chair its board. MLK day at City Year always brings together hundreds of people eager and excited to give something of themselves, not just to honor Dr. King, but also to improve their community.

    Advancing the idea that MLK day should be a "day on" doing service rather than just another "day off", more than 20 members of the Cabinet are at schools, homeless shelters, and other community service organizations pitching in.

    Pursuing careers in public service is another way to express the commitment to making our communities and nation better and stronger. During the Clinton Administration I was proud to do my part to help pass the national community service legislation that started Americorps, which supports community service projects that are underway every day across our nation.

    It is an honor once again to be working for a President who believes deeply in the power of community service and is committed to creating more opportunities for Americans to serve.

    Just a few months after coming into office, President Obama signed into law the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, expanding opportunities for Americans to serve their communities, scaling AmeriCorps from 75,000 volunteers up to 250,000 by 2017. The President’s Budget proposal for FY2011 backed up the promise of that legislation, providing funding for 105,000 AmeriCorps members in 2011, an increase of 20,000 from 2010, as well as supporting the National Civilian Community Corps program, a full-time program that dispatches teams to areas in need, with a focus on disaster relief. Understanding that outcomes are as important as good intentions, the Serve America Act also created a Social Innovation Fund to invest in ideas that are proven to improve outcomes and "what works" funds in federal agencies to promote effective and innovative programs.

    And recognizing that Americans wanted to do their part during the recent economic downturn to help their fellow citizens, the President launched United We Serve, a nationwide call to service. In fact, today’s day of service is part of that initiative.

    Dr. King once said that “everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.” That is as true today as it was when he said those words. I hope everyone has a chance to give back to their communities and their country today and every day, and that we can continue to strive to be great through our service.

    Jack Lew is the Director of the Office of Management and Budget