Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation Blog

  • 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.

  • An Exciting Day for Service and Social Innovation

    Today is a very exciting day for President Obama’s service and social innovation agendas. It marks the one year anniversary of the President’s signing of the bipartisan Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, and today we are launching the new website for the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation (SICP), a first-of-its-kind office within the Domestic Policy Council.

    The Serve America Act marked the boldest expansion of national and community service opportunities in a generation.  It tripled the size of AmeriCorps, targeted that service toward solutions, and created the Social Innovation Fund as an example of how government can more effectively drive resources toward both innovation and results.

    Today, I will be speaking at an event to commemorate the signing and to remember and honor the Serve America Act’s namesake, Senator Kennedy, for whom service was a life calling.  And we felt it fitting to launch our SICP website on this special day.

    When this office was created by the President, he charged it with engaging individuals, nonprofits, the private sector, and government to work together to make lasting progress on our Nation’s most pressing challenges. The Office’s principles and mission reflect the President’s call.

    In that spirit, the Office has been working with the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) – the federal agency home of service – to meet the vision championed by Senators Kennedy and Hatch, who worked together to introduce the Act, and the strong bipartisan coalition of Senate and House leaders who came together to support it.

    In addition to its work with CNCS, the Office is working with federal agencies across the government and with partners outside of government to do business differently by promoting service as a solution and a way to develop community leadership; increasing investment in innovative community solutions that demonstrate results; and developing new models of partnership.

    Today marks an important anniversary for the expansion of service and social innovation. There is much more work to be done, and we hope you will continue to stay engaged as we work together to address some of our country’s toughest challenges.

    Melody Barnes is Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy

  • Put Your Finger On the Global Pulse

    The US Government this week launched Global Pulse 2010.  Global Pulse is a way to reach out to those affected by US policies and ask key questions and get ideas that will help us better shape these policies to improve lives around the world. 

    Between now and Wednesday, thousands of people from over 130 countries are participating together virtually  to find shared solutions to common challenges, engage with US foreign policy leadership, and simply connect with each other -- through an online event called Global Pulse 2010. What we hear will help inform how we can fulfill the President’s vision of a foreign policy based on mutual interest and mutual respect, including a more comprehensive engagement with the world around common challenges. Sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in partnership with the Departments of State, Education, Commerce, and Health and Human Services, Global Pulse will engage participants to collaborate on discussions around pressing societal challenges, build upon each other’s contributions, and identify ways of moving forward. 

    As the Director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, and someone who has worked throughout my career to spur entrepreneurship -- both social and business -- in countries across the world, I am proud to serve as a Jam Host for the forum Advancing Entrepreneurship, Trade and Economic Opportunity. In my first post, I challenged participants to define entrepreneurship and identify which policies best create a supportive environment for entrepreneurship at the national, regional, and local levels.  I look forward to learning from the diverse experiences shared in these conversations -- ranging from academia, government, civil society, non-profits, business and the private sector -- and understanding how to catalyze entrepreneurship and innovation in a way that best works in communities around the world.

    In his June 4, 2009 speech in Cairo, President Obama stated, “There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from one another, and to seek common ground.”  Global Pulse 2010 answers this call to engage and partner with the international community in a meaningful way.  And you can still participate:  I encourage you to visit Global Pulse 2010 and join me and my colleagues from across the government in this conversation over the next few days.  We look forward to hearing from you.

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

  • The Role of Student-Led Innovation in “Killer Apps” for Broadband Networks

    Students have contributed (pdf) some of the most important advances in information and communications technologies—including data compression, interactive computer graphics, Ethernet, Berkeley Unix, the spreadsheet, public key cryptography, speech recognition, Mosaic, and Google.

    Today, with the right kind of support, students can play the role of innovators again—by leading the way in the development of broadband applications. In the same way that Mosaic and Google drove demand for today’s Internet, new applications could drive demand for a gigabit/second Internet and 4G wireless. Indeed, a key component of the Federal Communications Commission’s recently released National Broadband Plan is the development of new broadband applications.

    Now is the time to launch an initiative that would cultivate, with student involvement, such a wave of innovation. Although it’s impossible to predict what the next generation of applications will be, universities, companies, and students could work together under such an initiative, which would serve as a sort of “Petri dish” where new ideas could incubate and grow. This initiative could be led by the private sector, encourage multi-campus and even global collaboration, build on investments already made in high-speed research networks such as Internet2 and National LambdaRail, and take advantage of a growing number of grants from the Department of Commerce’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP).

    The initiative could have a number of elements, including:

    • Campus-based incubators for the development of broadband applications, with access to high-speed networks, cutting-edge peripherals, software development kits, and cloud computing services.
    • Relevant courses that encourage multidisciplinary teams of students to design and develop broadband applications.
    • Competitions that recognize compelling applications developed by students. Some existing competitions that could serve as models include Google’s Android Developer Challenge, Microsoft’s Imagine Cup, and the FCC-Knight Foundation’s “Apps for Inclusion” competition.

    Let us know what you think of this idea. You can send us e-mail at

    Tom Kalil is Deputy Director for Policy in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

    Aneesh Chopra is U.S. Chief Technology Officer and Associate Director for Technology in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

  • Investing in Innovation to Reach "Education's Moonshot"

    Education in FocusIn February 2009, President Obama stood before a joint session of Congress and announced that by 2020 the United States would once again have the highest percentage of college-educated adults in the world. 

    We need new solutions to achieve that ambitious goal, and as a nation we cannot afford to fail. Soon, the Department of Education will request applications to the Investing in Innovation (i3) fund, which will support the development of path-breaking new ideas, the validation of approaches that have demonstrated promise, and the scale-up of our nation’s most successful and proven education innovations.
    i3 takes a new approach to funding education programs: small grants to develop new ideas; significant money for moderate evidence; and, if you want the biggest dollars, you need to demonstrate not just great results but also prove that those results can scale to benefit large numbers of students. Those working in and around schools know that this work takes place against a backdrop of flat funding (at best) for education at the local and state level. Producing far better outcomes, for many more students, with the same resources as we have today, is a daunting challenge, but one we must accept.
    We know that educators and others are working everyday to meet these needs.  That is why one of the most exciting features of i3 is that it finally provides a way to identify the best ideas and practices from our nation’s teachers, schools, districts, and non-profits; highlight them on a national stage; and provide unprecedented resources for them to expand while we learn whether and how they work at scale. 
    Another new effort with a similar aspiration, the Open Innovation Portal (, provides a public forum for all who wish to participate in creating opportunities for partnership and local private and public funding - potentially multiplying many times over the federal funding opportunity. We are hopeful this community of innovators and supporters will be another way that the best our country and the world has to offer spreads to serve more students.

    Secretary Duncan has called the reform effort “education’s moonshot” a reminder of our nation’s ability to reach higher goals. Surely, with our children’s futures at stake, we can go there again.

    Jim Shelton is the Education Department’s Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and  Improvement