Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation Blog

  • 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  In my ninth month here, “yagaad” has slowly been replaced by “why” in my conversations with students, signaling to me that they now expect and desire my answers to be in English.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

  • Empowering Latinos in Minnesota: A Story Celebrating Service

    Service - Centro Campesino

    A health promoter provides blood pressure check ups to community members at a health fair organized by Centro Campesino in a local manufacturing home park. March 14, 2011. (by Centro Campesino)

    Located in Owatonna, Minnesota, Centro Campesino is a grassroots organization that empowers their community members to seek and develop solutions to their problems.  The organization focuses on engaging both migrant workers and year-round residents, many who are Latino.  Centro Campesino strives to improve the lives of its members through policy reform, education, youth outreach, and advocacy, and empower residents who receive their assistance to become the future providers.

    Partnerships in Health

    Centro Campesino believes that collaboration with local organizations can enhance the provisions of services.  Currently, Centro Campesino is running a pilot program in partnership with Allina Hospital in Owatonna.  Centro Campesino staff serve as promotoras or “health romoters” that provide, on a one-on-one basis, basic health education and check-ups.  They conduct cholesterol and HIV tests, measure blood pressure, and check sugar levels for community members.  Twice a month, doctors from Allina Hospital visit Centro Campesino to provide free consultations to community members who need additional health care.  This partnership has created an avenue for patients in the Latino community to receive medical care that would otherwise be unavailable.  “The ultimate goal is to eventually open a full time free clinic for low income uninsured residents in southern Minnesota,” says Jesus Torres, a community organizer at Centro Campesino.

    Community Outreach Through Youth Empowerment

    Centro Campesino also encourages youth to serve their communities through a spring internship program.  Students are tasked with identifying problems within the Latino community and developing effective solutions.  As an organization devoted to youth involvement within the community and committed to youth education and tutoring, Centro Campesino advocates learning through empowerment.  This year the students are directing their efforts toward computer literacy.  They have found local sponsors to donate computers, motivated friends and classmates to create a curriculum, and empowered fellow students to teach community members basic computer skills.  “Many of those who signed up [for classes] are parents,” says Torres.  “It will be interesting to see how these students step-up to teach parents, some of them their own.”  Centro Campesino believes that this program will not only prepare youth to be more responsible and to become leaders in their community, but it will also help community members overcome some of the technology obstacles they are facing. 

    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

  • 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.