Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation Blog

  • Peace Corps Volunteers are Natural Social Entrepreneurs

    Note: Following is a guest post from Aaron Williams, Director of the Peace Corps. If you didn't catch it, check out the great guest post about Laura Kutner, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala on Earth Day last week.

    Earlier this week, I attended "A New Beginning: Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship" with representatives from over fifty countries.  I was honored to present on a panel of leaders in the field of social entrepreneurship from Egypt, France, Indonesia and the United States. As a commitment to continue the work forged at the Summit, I am also proud to announce that Peace Corps will be increasing the number of opportunities for Americans to serve in our 18 predominantly Muslim host countries by 20% over the next two years.

    Social entrepreneurship is a concept Peace Corps Volunteers embrace every day in our 76 host countries around the world.  Although each Volunteer has a unique experience, all value the power of community and cooperation to create grassroots change.  You would be hard pressed to find a Volunteer, whether with Peace Corps or another organization, ever utter the words, “I did it alone.”

    The social entrepreneurship panel led by the White House’s Sonal Shah emphasized the fact that social entrepreneurs, like business entrepreneurs, are vital components of strong economies and societies. Social entrepreneurship unifies business principles and social ventures by empowering people to organize and create social change in their communities. It fosters sustainable grassroots development, addresses specific challenges and increases capacity building in local communities around the globe.

    The commitment to work with entrepreneurs around the world, including those in predominantly Muslim countries, was a major component of President Obama’s historic speech in Cairo.  Today, over 1,800 Americans serve as Peace Corps Volunteers in 18 predominantly Muslim host countries and, in the last seven months, Peace Corps has added two new Muslim majority host countries, Indonesia and Sierra Leone. Since the inception of the Peace Corps in 1961, more than 44,000 Peace Corps Volunteers have served in predominantly Muslim nations.

    Peace Corps Volunteers work at the community level on pressing issues including teacher shortages, food security, income generation, environmental challenges and youth engagement. Our Volunteers are adaptive and, through hands-on experience, identify what actions must be taken to support local communities and foster the sustainability of community projects.

    Peace Corps is a people-to-people exchange of ideas, languages and a commitment to creating a stronger community. Find out more about opportunities to serve by visiting PeaceCorps.gov.

    Aaron Williams is Director of the Peace Corps and served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic from 1967-1970.
     

  • Check it Out: Prizes and Challenges Conference Friday

    Our Office will be co-hosting a conference tomorrow on the use of Prizes and Challenges in spurring innovation in government with the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the Case Foundation. Check out the agenda and find out more about how you can participate and stay involved in the discussion at the Case Foundation’s website.

    As part of the conference, Sonal will be moderating a discussion called “Challenges & Prizes: Early Public Sector Innovators” with representatives from NASA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the Joyce Foundation.

    She’ll also be participating in what’s called CaseSoup, an interactive Q&A session where you can engage with Sonal live from 1:00-1:30 PM, in addition to other expert discussions on prizes and challenges throughout the day.  If you have a question, you can tweet it using the hashtag #opengov, e-mail it to casesoup@casefoundation.org, or ask it using the live chat function during the session.

    Sonal will be doing the CaseSoup session with Jonathan Bays of McKinsey, who co-authored And the Winner is…: Capturing the Promise of Philanthropic Prizes, an excellent report on how to think through when to use prizes and what types to use that has been very helpful in our thinking.

    Charlie Anderson is a Policy Assistant in the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.

  • From Cairo to D.C.: Advancing Social Entrepreneurship on a Global Scale

    This week, the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship brought together more than 275 participants from over 50 countries around the world—from Morocco to Indonesia, Uganda to Kazakhstan, France to India— to represent their regions, sectors, and communities for two days here in Washington, DC.

    DPC Director Melody Barnes participated  on the Access to Capital panel and articulated the importance of providing capital to both business and social entrepreneurs.   I was fortunate to moderate a panel discussion on social entrepreneurship with Yuyun Ismawati, an entrepreneur from Indonesia who has developed a community-based sanitation model in 300 communities and 1,000 locations; representatives of entrepreneurship support organizations like Iman Bibars, the Arab World Director of Ashoka and Charlotte Hochman of La Ruche that incubates social innovators in Paris; Chris Hughes, a technologist who co-founded Facebook and recently launched Jumo, an online networking tool for international development; and Aaron Williams, Director of the Peace Corps.

    The panel highlighted interesting models of entrepreneurship from around the world, different approaches of each of the organizations and most importantly key things that they have learned in their successes.  The Summit (and the panel) provided us an opportunity to better understand from the panelists and the audience, the obstacles to advancing entrepreneurship and what they see as potential solutions. There were some great lessons learned that we’ll share in more detail on this blog in the coming weeks. And across the Summit, we were amazed by the number of just incredibly moving stories of entrepreneurship – social and business – from people in the audience and on stage alike.

    Wednesday and Thursday, a number of partner events continued the discussion and built upon the progress made at the Summit, and yesterday I enjoyed keynoting and taking some Q&A at the Brookings Institute’s Middle East Youth Initiative’s (MEYI) event on social entrepreneurship, one of the many follow-on activities to the Summit. They’ve just released an excellent report on social entrepreneurship in the Middle East that Secretary Clinton highlighted at the top of her remarks that concluded the Summit.

    Finally, be sure to take a look at all the entrepreneurship initiatives announced at the Summit, as well as the remarks by the President, Secretary Clinton, Secretary Locke, and NEC Director, Larry Summers. It truly was an exciting week for advancing the President’s vision for a new beginning.

    Sonal Shah is Deputy Assistant to the President and Director, Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.

  • Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship: Access to Capital Recap

    In his June 4th, 2009 address in Cairo, President Obama announced that the U.S. would host a Summit on Entrepreneurship to identify how we can deepen ties between business leaders, foundations, and entrepreneurs in the United States and Muslim communities around the world. Yesterday and today, entrepreneurs, financiers, and leaders from around the world gathered to deliver on that vision on the first day of the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship.

    As part of the event, I participated in a ” discussion on the importance of capital for both business and social entrepreneurs and the role of government in creating an environment in which entrepreneurs can succeed.

    There was some question about the importance or role of social entrepreneurs in the economy and as Domestic Policy Advisor, I can assure you that the Administration regards both business and social entrepreneurs as critical to the US economy.  The federal government is focused on creating jobs and supporting small business, and we are actively engaged to ensure that small business owners have the tools they need to succeed.  Similarly, we are also focused on social entrepreneurs who are not just ‘do gooders’, but also an economic force – the sector contributes $600 billion to the US economy and accounts for about 10% of jobs.  They train the next generation workforce, ensure that families are healthy to work and help low-income families find pathways out of poverty when they don’t have access to jobs, job training or an education.

    Social entrepreneurs, similar to business entrepreneurs, need a policy environment that encourages innovation and results; an entrepreneurial support ecosystem that helps leaders develop strategies and build the organization for scaling up; and an education system that gives them the necessary skills to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

    But in some ways, the hurdles that social entrepreneurs face to getting capital are even tougher to surmount than their business counterparts.

    First, social entrepreneurs measure their returns not in profit, but in impact, a much trickier thing to quantify. And often that impact is to society and does not accrue to the organization generating it.  For instance, if a nonprofit successfully takes a community’s middle school students from dramatic underperformance to on par with their statewide peers, the results have a tremendous value for the community that does not necessarily translate to the organization’s  bottom line.  Just look at the work Geoff Canada has done at the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York.

    President Obama recognizes that social entrepreneurs take risks and fill gaps that government and the private sector do not address. They are an integral part of our economic future. That is why he created the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation housed in the Domestic Policy Council. One of the Office’s three mission areas is to increase investment for innovative solutions that demonstrate results.

    But to do this, we have to find innovative ways to not only get capital to social entrepreneurs but to create a viable marketplace for investors who want to have an impact to be able to find, support, and scale what works. We are beginning that work here, through things like the Social Innovation Fund at the Corporation for National and Community Service and the Investing in Innovation Fund at the Department of Education.

    We also know that we have much to learn from our global neighbors. Mohammed Yunus’ work to get microfinance to the poor is now being replicated in Omaha and New York.  And, Text4Baby is delivering critical pre-natal information to pregnant women in the U.S. but has its roots in mobile technology delivering information in sub-Saharan Africa.  Good ideas are flowing around the globe.

    As we go forward, together, in the President’s framework of a new beginning based on mutual interest and mutual respect, we aim to continue learning, sharing, and building upon the work that begins at this week’s Summit.

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

  • Serve America Act Anniversary Event

    As she wrote on the White House blog the other day, Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes gave the opening remarks at a luncheon recognizing the one year Anniversary of the Serve America Act. We have included her full remarks below.

    2010-04-21 Melody Barnes at Serve America Act Anniversary

    Domestic Policy Council Director and Assistant to the President, Melody Barnes, delivers remarks on the one year anniversary of the Serve America Act in Washington, DC. April 21, 2010. April 21, 2010.

     

    The White House

    Remarks by Melody Barnes on the One Year Anniversary of the Serve America Act
    April 21, 2010

    W Hotel - Washington, DC

    12:30 PM EDT

    Good afternoon everyone.

    Thank you Cokie for that kind introduction and for helping us start this exciting day. Thanks to America Forward, ServiceNation and Voices for National Service for your collaboration and leadership, as well as bringing us together today.

    It’s my pleasure to share this stage with so many who have dedicated their careers to both serving their communities and expanding the opportunities available for others to serve —the Honorable Harris Wofford who has been a guiding star for us all; the wonderful Senator Jeanne Shaheen; our new Corporation for National and Community Service CEO Patrick Corvington; my friend Vicki Kennedy; and service leaders John Podesta, Shirley Sagawa, and Kerry Sullivan. 

    It’s certainly not news to any of you that our nation is facing challenges that we haven’t seen in many generations, and at this moment your leadership and commitment has never been more crucial.  For 15 months, President Obama has been hard at work steering our economy away from the brink of depression, and fighting to strengthen our communities by sparking job creation, reforming our health insurance system, opening the door to higher education for millions of students, and laying the groundwork for long-term prosperity.   But we know government can’t do this alone – if there ever was one, this is an “all hands on deck” moment, and that’s why the President has called on every American to commit to meaningful volunteer service in their daily lives. National service and innovation – or community solutions, as we call it – are critical tools to addressing our Nation’s biggest challenges.

    The good news is that millions of Americans have stepped up to the plate, and I feel particularly optimistic about the future when I look at all the service-minded leaders gathered in this room.  As leaders of some of the top community service programs across the country, your organizations are on the front lines of our economic crisis, our health care crisis, our housing crisis, you name it.  You’ve answered the call to serve at a time when your country needs you the most. You’ve found innovative ways to help your neighbors and improve your communities. And you are helping realize the President’s vision for a service-driven citizenry. Thank YOU for your work.

    But we need to do more. We need more troops in our service Army, and that’s why the President supported and signed, one year ago today, the bipartisan Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act – to triple the size of AmeriCorps by 2017 and build a new generation of service leaders.  In the Senate, the bill was championed by Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy who knew that the future of service was too important to be bogged down in ideological differences and political battles. It’s when we come together with a shared vision and common purpose that great strides forward can be made. 

    And already, we’ve seen results that would make Senator Kennedy proud as people across the country answer the call to serve.

    People like Anna Mackowiak [Ma-co-vee-ack], an AmeriCorps Recovery Act Fellow in Georgia, who recently moved from private legal practice to a Legal Aid program devoted to preventing home foreclosures. 

    And AmeriCorps VISTA members Sara Byrnes and Josh Cowles who were instrumental in helping a local public library provide free, volunteer-taught classes to provide men and women with vital job skills. Because of Sara and Josh’s work, the center has seen a 62% increase in the use of its services, and recently the center secured funding to expand services to surrounding communities.

    And then there are stories like Gary’s.  Gary chose to enlist in the Army in 1966 and served a tour of duty in Vietnam.  Forty years later, he found himself in a position he never imagined: homeless due to the economic conditions facing his community and our country.  After nine months of homelessness, his life began to change in May of 2009.  An employment program for seniors led him to the Longview Housing Authority, which eventually became the host site for his AmeriCorps position -- a position created with Recovery Act funding and sponsored by the United Way.  Last June, Gary enrolled as a full-time member of the local AmeriCorps Recovery Team and used his first-hand experience with homelessness to reach out to other homeless veterans.  He assisted unemployed veterans with job readiness tools, informed them of available housing programs, and enabled them to connect with services available through the VA.  He eventually helped the Longview Housing Authority open up Vet Works in only four months, a project that was expected to take a year to launch.  Thanks to Gary’s work, homeless veterans are off the streets.

    Anna.  Sara.  Josh.  Gary.  Four people transforming communities and lives, including their own.  And thanks to the Serve America Act, millions more – of all ages and backgrounds -- will get the same opportunity to transform their neighborhood.

    Service as solution.  It couldn’t happen at a more critical time. The Recovery Act provided $200 million to put more than 15,000 Americans to work as AmeriCorps members, and every day they now provide vital services in our most economically distressed communities: Job counseling and placement service to neighbors facing unemployment;
    foreclosure prevention and financial counseling to families at risk of poverty; weatherizing homes, strengthening food banks, supporting health care and independent living services. And the list goes on and on
       
    And part of coming together to solve our nation’s greatest challenges means not just increasing the number that serve but also acknowledging that government alone is not the solution. Individuals across the country are responding to the tough problems by developing answers that will lead to more transformational and lasting change. We need to partner with them – as well as nonprofits, foundations and corporations – to solve our nation’s problems.

    To this end, the Serve America Act also established the Social Innovation Fund to identify innovative, effective programs from across the country and help them replicate and grow to scale. Ordinary people can do extraordinary things if they're given the proper tools and support. The best ideas often come straight from the communities that need them most. With the Social Innovation Fund and similar funds in other federal agencies, we can better support creative, results-oriented, and proven models, and take them to scale in communities around the country.

    The next great leap will be made when we as a country recognize that service, civic participation, and innovation are core to addressing our nation’s challenges – not just “something nice to do.”  That’s why the President invested in the largest expansion of national service opportunities in history. And that is why the President and the First Lady are leading by example -- whether it’s reading to kids at area schools or bringing high school students into the White House for a monthly mentoring program. The First Lady even publicly challenged the students at George Washington University to complete over 100,000 hours of community service this year; they did, and she will be giving their commencement address this spring in recognition of their achievement.

    Given the President and the First Lady’s commitment to service, we’re particularly thrilled that Patrick Corvington has joined us as our new CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service.  For many years he has been on the frontlines of leadership development and volunteerism, dedicating his career to building the next generation of leaders and investing in the future of the national service and social innovation movement.  He’s a great leader for this moment, and I’m pleased to call him my colleague and friend, and work with him to realize the President’s goals.  

    In closing, I’d like to thank you again for the hard work you have done over the past year to promote and expand service since the Serve America Act became law.  It is appropriate that this legislation is named after Senator Kennedy, a true visionary and champion of service, a mentor and a friend to many, myself included.  

    You know, when Senator Kennedy spoke of service, he often recounted the parable of the starfish.  An elderly man encounters a young boy surrounded by thousands of star fish on a nearly deserted beach.  Eagerly, the young boy was picking up the starfish and throwing them back into the ocean.  The man asks the boy what he’s doing, and the boy tells him that he’s trying to save the star fish.  Chuckling, the man says, “son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you.  What difference can you make?  A starfish in hand, the boy looked at the man and – gently tossing a starfish into the water – said, “it will make a difference to that one.”

    Ted Kennedy was like that boy – methodically, deliberately tending to individuals and communities . . . always believing in the possibility for transformation.  If he pressed a little harder . . . better education for more children. If he led the charge . . . body armor for soldiers. If he introduced the bill . . . redress for hate crimes. If he put his shoulder to the wheel . . . health care for all Americans.

    The Senator was motivated by that huge heart but disciplined by hours of study and hard work and mastery of the institution – the Senate -- he loved.  Ted Kennedy embodied national service and like all great leaders he challenged us – he still challenges us -- to find our own patch of beach and to start gently tossing starfish back into the ocean.

    So today, on the first anniversary of the bill that bears his name, I want to thank you for your continued partnership and leadership. And I look forward to doing more good work together.

    Charlie Anderson is a Assistant in the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.
     

  • Every Day is Earth Day for Peace Corps Volunteers

    Note: From time to time SICP will invite our federal government colleagues to guest post on our blog. Following is a great Earth Day story about a Peace Corps volunteer with a community solution to an environmental problem. Happy Earth Day!

    No one would ever know that the walls of a two-room elementary school in Granados, Guatemala were created with plastic bottles.  Unless, that is, you helped Laura Kutner, an innovative third-year Peace Corps Volunteer from Portland, Ore., and her community complete the project, which proved to be a sustainable, environmentally friendly, and cost-effective alternative to traditional construction.  Kutner and many of my former Peace Corps/Guatemala colleagues have helped their communities construct, what we like to call, “bottle schools,” which are constructed by enclosing plastic bottles in a chicken-wire frame and covering them with concrete to create walls. They use the bottles — which were cleaned and filled with plastic bags, chip wrappers, aluminum, and Styrofoam discarded in the community — as an alternative to cinder block.

    Peace Corps Recycling Photo - Earth Day

    Laura Kutner's (Peace Corps/Guatemala) elementary school students help build a school in Granados, Guatemala. April 16, 2010.

    In Kutner’s case, students and community partners helped to collect so many bottles and trash, they had to go to surrounding communities to find more discarded materials to build the school. This project sparked the community’s interest in pollution, recycling and waste management.   Other Guatemalans have taken note, and Peace Corps Volunteers across the Central American country are in the process of building schools, walls and recycling centers out of trash.  And, if Volunteers aren’t involved in bottle construction, they are working to educate their local communities about the importance of respecting the environment, or on a variety of other projects.

    Peace Corps Volunteers are faced with the challenging task of accessing community needs, brainstorming sustainable projects with local people, garnering their support and finding grassroots funding.  Peace Corps is a unique experience, Volunteers partner with local communities and both live and work where they serve. Among other projects on Earth Day, Peace Corps Volunteers worldwide are engaged in establishing forest conservation plans, helping develop alternatives to wood as a fuel source, and collaborating with various organizations to promote environmental awareness. Click here to see more examples of Volunteers’ work.

    Peace Corps Volunteers are encouraged to share their experiences with Americans upon return from service. Many former Peace Corps Volunteers use Earth Day to speak about their service and environmental conservation.  As Peace Corps approaches its 50th anniversary, its service legacy continues to promote peace and friendship around the world with 7,671 volunteers serving in 76 host countries. To learn more about the Peace Corps, please visit our website.

    Kelly McCormack recently returned from Peace Corps/Guatemala. She now works in the Peace Corps Communications Office.