Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation Blog

  • A Community on the Cutting Edge of Science

    Two weeks ago, the National Conversation on the Future of America’s Cities and Metropolitan Areas took us to Seattle, Washington to see the city’s marriage of economic development and livability. Joined by Deputy Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ron Sims, Assistant Secretary of Economic Development for the U.S. Department of Commerce John Fernandez, and NIH Director for the Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences Dr. Robert Croyle, we toured the South Lake Union neighborhood.

    SBRI’s Bioquest education program

    Left to right: Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, Assistant Secretary John Fernandez, Adolfo Carrion, and Ron Sims meet with kids that are taking advantage of SBRI’s Bioquest education program. October 14, 2009. (by Alaina Beverly)

    In the past five years, over 2.7 million square feet of space has been constructed at South Lake Union for the biotech and life science industry, placing Seattle at the forefront of medical innovation. This neighborhood, combined with mixed-use and affordable-housing development and public transportation solutions, showed us how regional economic development initiatives can include and foster smart growth.

    Our day began with an overview of the South Lake Union neighborhood at the Vulcan, Inc. Discovery Center. There we learned of Mayor Greg Nickels’ successful efforts since 2002 to recruit biotech and life science organizations. Why? Good jobs. These businesses provide high-wage jobs and like to locate close to one another to foster collaboration. In short, biotech businesses make good “regional innovation clusters.” In Seattle’s case, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington (UW) were early biotech anchors that helped to attract other biotech businesses. 

    I especially enjoyed our stop at the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute (SBRI), a leader in infectious disease research. There we received presentations on the work of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, UW Medicine and the Washington Global Health Alliance. All of these “heavyweight” research and global health institutions are housed in a 60-block radius, sharing ideas, students, facilities and often clientele.

    The reason the visit to SBRI was special is because we got to talk to high school students who are taking advantage of SBRI’s Bioquest education program. The aim of Bioquest is to inspire the next generation of scientists by allowing teenagers to get hands-on experience in a lab and meet working scientists and researchers. Dr. Robert Croyle found it particularly rewarding to see kids benefiting from the over $86,000 in Recovery Funding that was awarded to SBRI to expand the Bioquest program, offering college credit to high school seniors.

    Bart Harvey Senior Residential Development

    Left to right: Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, Adolfo Carrion, and Deputy Secretary Ron Sims outside the Bart Harvey Senior Residential Development. October 14, 2009. (by Alaina Beverly)

    But South Lake Union is not just about science, collaboration and commercialization. It is about community. During our walking tour of the neighborhood, we visited the Bart Harvey residence for low-income seniors. The six-story building has an enviable array of amenities—a library room with a computer lab, community meeting space, offices for case management and support services, and a green roof that provides a  panoramic view of the Seattle skyline – my favorite though, a rooftop herb garden.  We spoke to one resident who expressed her love for her new home. She said, “I am comfortable here. We have everything at our fingertips. Maybe it’s just me, but I love to go up to the garden on the roof and watch the planes touch down.” 

    Sharon Lee, Executive Director of the Low Income Housing Institute explained, “We need to make sure low-income people can live in middle-class neighborhoods not only in distressed communities.We have changed the look of low-income housing. Not only is it well designed, it’s green.”

    We topped off the day with an important policy discussion about the qualities that define a successful regional innovation cluster, the role of the federal government in supporting that type of development, and lessons learned from the South Lake Union experience. Ada Healy, Vice President of Real Estate for Vulcan, Inc., the key local private sector partner noted, “This group came together because of extraordinary leadership, coordination, and cooperation from the Mayor’s Office, the Gates Foundation, the non-profit community, government, and business. There was an atmosphere of trust and a commitment to not just create offices where people work from 9-to-5, but real communities.”  

    Assistant Secretary John Fernandez explained that the Economic Development Administration is looking to “create a bridge” to encourage innovations that reach beyond the center and positively affect the whole region.”

    Our trip to Seattle showed us that smart, coordinated planning can attract a cluster of businesses to a neighborhood and spur regional economic development, and train the next generation of scientists, provide housing for seniors, and create a more livable community. Thanks, Seattle!!

    Adolfo Carrión, Jr. is Director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs and Deputy Assistant to the President

  • Innovation with Crawfish Sauce: What a New Orleans Nonprofit Can Teach the Rest of the Country

    Earlier this month, I joined the President in New Orleans for his first visit there since the election.  A key part of the President’s message was that the Gulf Coast’s recovery didn’t flow just from government programs and policies:

    I've talked a lot today about what steps we've taken at the federal level to help the Gulf Coast recover and rebuild.  But the true story is this community's unbending resilience.  That doesn't start in Washington.  It starts right here, in the reborn neighborhoods of New Orleans. . . . The story of this city's resilience begins with all the men and women who refused to give up on their homes; who stayed to clean up and rebuild -- not just their own homes or their own yards or their own lives, but their neighbors', too.

    I wanted to witness this bottom-up strength firsthand, so after the president’s speech, I visited Café Reconcile, one of the many innovative community organizations that have stepped up to help the Gulf Coast recover following Katrina.

    Melody Barnes at Cafe Reconcile

    Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council Melody Barnes, along with Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu and Tulane University President Scott Cowen, poses with the staff of Café Reconcile in New Orleans. October 15, 2009.

    Located in the distressed Central City neighborhood of New Orleans, Café Reconcile ( helps at-risk young people aged 16-22 with life skills, while training them for jobs in the restaurant business, one of the largest employers in New Orleans. Reconcile’s students are poor, many are high school dropouts, come from broken homes, are victims of abuse, or are veterans of the juvenile justice system. Café Reconcile provides case management, academic training, and on-the-job experience at a working restaurant that is popular for its staples like baked chicken, fried catfish (with or without crawfish sauce), and jambalaya.

    On Thursday I sat down with staff and participants to enjoy a late lunch.  We were joined by Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu and Tulane University President Scott Cowen.

    “There are no bad kids on the streets of New Orleans,” Reconcile’s Director of Programs, Donna Bowie told us. “They may not have had the nurturing and support that you and I had, but that's what we provide at Café Reconcile."

    One by one, the young program participants and alumni shared their stories, stories of heartbreaking challenges like teenage pregnancies and run ins with the law, but also stories of redemption, of the difference it makes to have caring adults, supportive peers and a job to do. 

    Christopher Lewis

    Christopher Lewis came to Reconcile after being kicked out of school for fights and combating a drug habit. He told us that Reconcile gave him a sense of responsibility, “I realized that the world keeps moving and I can't just stay put.  My mom can't do it for me, my family can't do it for me, I have to do it for myself."

    Sometimes it is the small things that make all the difference.  Michael Smith, a 20-year-old participant in the program, told me about the self-confidence he gained just by wearing a professional uniform.  He started to tear up as he talked about his nine younger siblings, who had been through so much, being proud of him as he left home dressed for work.  Smith experienced family drug use, witnessed neighborhood violence and has been forced to move six times since returning to the city following Hurricane Katrina.  He came to Reconcile after dropping out of school as a junior and struggling to maintain employment.

    Nearing the end of Reconcile’s program, his peers hail him as a natural leader in the restaurant.  Most importantly, Michael has set an example for his siblings and his community.

    Doris Sylvan

    “Reconcile taught me the skills to get a job and keep a job,” said  Doris Sylvan, a 19-year-old single mother who graduated from Reconcile’s program and now works there mentoring other students while attending community college.  “There need to be more programs like this.”

    Well, here at the White House, we agree with Doris.   There need to be more programs like Café Reconcile, not just in New Orleans, but across the country.  All across the nation, people are finding solutions to society’s most intractable problems, like the dropout rate, childhood obesity, persistent poverty, or homelessness.  These innovators are breaking through bureaucratic barriers and reaching people in need in ways that no government program could.  We think that these hidden gems should be identified and their solutions replicated in  more communities, but that’s easier said than done.

    Let’s take the case of Café Reconcile. The nonprofit is planning a big expansion that will include a catering business, a family learning center, and business accelerator. In order to achieve that growth, the organization needs a few things.  It needs additional staff, new equipment and renovated space – or what we call “overhead costs” to expand its operations.

    These  resources are often the hardest funds to raise from foundations and private donors.  Reconcile needs to be able to prove to potential funders that it is having an impact by showing, for instance, that their students go on to get their GEDs and keep jobs.  Proving that impact takes expertise and resources that are also hard to come by for small community groups.  Finally, Reconcile needs technical expertise to help them continually improve their model and help more kids.

    We think that the government has an important but limited role in helping groups like Café Reconcile take the next step. 

    That’s why the President has established a Social Innovation Fund.  Run out of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the Social Innovation Fund will provide the growth capital that is largely lacking in the philanthropic sector.

    This fund will invest in programs we know are high-impact  and help them grow to other communities around the country.  This is a new role for government.   Instead of simply funding services year after year, the President believes government can play a more dynamic role by seeking out creative, results-oriented programs and serving as a catalyst for replicating those efforts.  That’s also why we are looking at other ways to promote capacity building among nonprofits, all the while having a dogged focus on impact and metrics.  We have to know that we are getting a good return on the investment of taxpayer dollars.

    This isn’t an idea that started with President Obama.  Scott Cowen and Mitch Landrieu have been on the front lines for years.  At Tulane, Cowen is working to train the next generation of innovators who are changing the way we solve problems. Tulane was selected by Ashoka, the world's leading network of social entrepreneurs, as a Changemaker Campus.  Landrieu created the nation’s first statewide Office of Social Entrepreneurship, which is looking to help promising nonprofits identify and leverage available resources.

    Lieutenant Governor Landrieu in his closing statements at Café Reconcile explained why Louisiana has become a hotbed of social entrepreneurship and why it matters for the rest of the country. “In the aftermath of Katrina, we are teaching the rest of the country how to deal with the problems of living in a great city.  We didn’t ask for this responsibility, but the truth is that the answers to America’s problems are coming from the streets of New Orleans.”

    That is true for innovative nonprofits all across the country.  The solutions to our great challenges may be being invented on the streets of Portland, Denver, Miami, or everywhere in between. Only New Orleans may be the only place where those solutions also come with Shrimp Ettoufee.  

     Melody Barnes is Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council

  • "You've Got to Believe" - Building the Cars of the Future in America

    Biden Fisker Three

    (Vice President Joe Biden announces that Fisker Automotive of Irvine, California will build plug-in electric sports cars at the shuttered GM plant in Wilmington, Delaware, Tuesday, October 27, 2009. Official White House Photo by David Lienemann) October 27, 2009. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

    The cars of the future are coming, and they will be built right here in the United States.  Vice President Joe Biden echoed that sentiment today as he announced that the former GM Boxwood Manufacturing Plant in Wilmington, Delaware was reopening for business.  With the help of the Administration, loans from the Department of Energy, commitment from the state of Delaware, and the dedication of the American workforce, Fisker Automotive will soon begin manufacturing long-range, plug-in, electric hybrid vehicles at the Boxwood Plant.  By 2014, the company plans to roll 75,000 to 100,000 plug-in, hybrid sedans off the assembly line each year.

    The excitement in the crowd today reminded us that American innovation and manufacturing built the automotive industry in the 20th century – now, we will rebuild and retool it during the 21st century in a more efficient, inventive, and environmentally friendly way.  As the Vice President said today:  “American innovators, American business, American labor has never let this country down when we've been given a fighting chance.  And today, this factory in Delaware, and the industry, are going to get back up off the mat.”

    The future is now and Americans are investing in the new automobile.  Not just the manufacturing, but all aspects of the supply chain—from engineering the battery to powering the cars, from building the materials needed for assembly to shipping the finished product all over the world.  As the Vice President said:  “Imagine an America that has freed itself from the grip of the oligarchs of oil by plugging their cars into a new electric grid of renewable energy based on wind and solar and geothermal.  Imagine a world where people pop the hood of their cars and they see stamped on the battery ‘Made in America.’"

    Soon, we won’t have to imagine. 

    Biden Fisker One

    (Vice President Joe Biden announces that Fisker Automotive of Irvine, California will build plug-in electric sports cars at the shuttered GM plant in Wilmington, Delaware, Tuesday, October 27, 2009. Official White House Photo by David Lienemann) October 27, 2009. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

    Biden Fisker Two

    Vice President Joe Biden announces that Fisker Automotive of Irvine, California will build plug-in electric sports cars at the shuttered GM plant in Wilmington, Delaware, Tuesday, October 27, 2009. Official White House Photo by David Lienemann October 27, 2009. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)


    Elizabeth Alexander is Press Secretary to the Vice President


  • Science, Math Get Honors in the Classroom

    President Obama may have been speaking metaphorically when he promised, during his inaugural address, that his administration would "restore science to its rightful place." But he was also speaking literally. And as a number of Administration initiatives have since made clear, one of the most rightful places for science today is the classroom.

    The Obama administration has pursued with real zeal an array of approaches to bolstering science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education (also known as "STEM ed"). These have ranged from formal federal grant programs such as Race to the Top, which is providing competitive grants to states that pump up the innovation in their academic programs, to events such as Astronomy Night on the White House lawn—the historic educational fest earlier this month that brought 150 local middle schoolers onto the South Lawn after sunset, where NASA astronomers and others pointed dozens of telescopes at the Moon, Saturn and its moons, and the furthest reaches of the universe.

    The emphasis makes sense. Science and technology are responsible for a very large portion of this nation’s economic growth over the past 50 years. And scientists and engineers today are in the best position to solve many of the most pressing challenges facing the nation and the world, including energy shortages, climate change, inadequate healthcare, and poor nutrition.

    It’s wonderful that this country was home to so many Nobel Prize winners this year. But STEM education is increasingly being appreciated as the key to assuring that America cultivates a new generation of experts as well, with the skills to create the new green technologies we need to strengthen our economy in the 21st Century.

    STEM education will be a major topic at this week’s meeting of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, which will feature a STEM presentation by Education Secretary Arne Duncan. You can watch the livestream on Friday, Oct. 23, at 10:45 a.m., at or at

    What do you think is going right, or wrong, with STEM education? Send your comments during Duncan’s talk via the White House Facebook account or via Twitter (use the hash tag #STEMcomment).

  • The Open Internet Blog

    Cross-posted from

    The Internet's open architecture has enabled this network of networks to become a unparalleled platform for innovation and speech, as well as an enduring engine for economic growth. Last month, I proposed that the FCC adopt a fair and high-level framework to preserve an open Internet. While my goals are clear, the path to achieving them involves many hard questions about how best to maximize the innovation and investment necessary for a robust and thriving Internet. Getting input from all stakeholders will be important as the Commission begins to address many critical questions. That is why we launched We wanted to create a place where people could join the discussion about the open Internet. While is still in Beta, we are encouraged that thousands of visitors have already used the site to watch my speech proposing open Internet principles and more than 500 people have offered comments.

    Today, we are expanding the ways people can use to participate in this discussion by launching the site’s blog. Visitors to this blog will be able to find expert commentary from FCC staff on how best to preserve the Internet’s openness and questions that arise during this debate. Our staff hopes to use this forum not only to share ideas but also to receive them. We encourage all visitors to weigh in with their own thoughts and engage in an open dialogue.

    The blog will also offer timely information on the FCC's latest activities to preserve an open Internet. On that front, we have an important announcement to make. Next Thursday, October 22, my fellow Commissioners and I will be hosting a meeting at the FCC’s headquarters to begin the process of establishing rules to preserve the Internet's openness. These proceedings will be open to the public and streamed live on this site. Please check it out, and let us know what you think.

    This blog is just the latest piece of an agency-wide effort to engage the public. We hope you will take advantage of it and keep coming back.  Come by and let us know what you think.

    Julius Genachowski is the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission


  • Replicating Success

    Speaking before a group of nonprofit and philanthropic leaders on June 30th, President Obama stated that:
    The bottom line is clear: Solutions to America's challenges are being developed every day at the grass roots – and government shouldn't be supplanting those efforts, it should be supporting those efforts.  Instead of wasting taxpayer money on programs that are obsolete or ineffective, government should be seeking out creative, results-oriented programs like the ones here today and helping them replicate their efforts across America.
    The Corporation for National Community and Service (the Corporation) is taking up the President's call through the creation of the Social Innovation Fund—a fund that was authorized by the bi-partisan Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act of 2009. 
    The Social Innovation Fund is currently being designed, and for those interested in learning more and participating in a question and answer session, representatives of the Corporation will be hosting a conference call on October 15th (sign-up information is below).
    We know that every day innovative and effective nonprofit organizations are working to solve some of the greatest challenges facing our nation—from low high school graduation rates, to the acute job skills deficit, to a lack of access to affordable, quality health care. 
    They are driven by the passion to help others and to lead change in their communities, and these factors are an indispensible part of their success.  It is what makes the long hours bearable and what compels thousands of people to volunteer with them in the pursuit of a goal larger than themselves.  
    But their success is also a function of their drive to find the best—the most efficient and effective—ways to do their work.  By subjecting themselves to evaluation, they are able to calculate their impact and plot a new course of action if the evidence points to an approach or an idea that will allow them to make an even greater difference in people's lives.   
    Through the Social Innovation Fund, President Obama is committed to supporting the growth and replication of innovative nonprofit organizations and practices that can demonstrate their impact.  Specifically, the fund will provide on a competitive basis, multi-year federal support to promising nonprofit organizations in communities across the country. 
    The President has asked Congress for $50 million in funding, which will then be matched by investments from a network of experienced grant makers and the nonprofit organizations themselves. 
    The goal is to build a pipeline of organizations and practices with strong evidence, and the capacity to grow and increase the impact of their work.  The Social Innovation Fund will provide the support needed to help move organizations from the promising stage to the stage where they have more concrete evidence that what they do, works.
    This is a new way of doing business for government.  For that reason, the process of designing the Social Innovation Fund has been proactive, with outreach to interested individuals and communities early in the design process in order to capture their best thinking and ideas.  The Corporation and the White House have conducted over 50 meetings with stakeholders such as:
    • Nonprofit organizations addressing our nation's many challenges
    • Foundations that invest both organizational expertise and resources in nonprofit organizations
    • Community foundations with extensive experience in local communities
    • Evaluation experts with unique knowledge about how to measure impact
    • Academics and other experts with knowledge about how to support innovation, growth and expansion of high-performing nonprofit organizations
    • Organizations focused on service and volunteerism, including hundreds of participants at the National Conference on Service and Volunteering
    • Other federal agencies working to surface and fund innovative organizations, such as the Departments of Education and Housing and Urban Development
    • Federal agencies with existing funding for innovation and a wealth of historical knowledge, such as the Small Business Administration and Department of Defense; and
    • Local and state government leaders
    In addition to these targeted meetings, the Corporation conducted five listening sessions around the country and phone calls open to the public on the implementation of the Serve America Act, including the Social Innovation Fund, and created a space on their Web site to solicit public feedback. 
    Over the next several months, the Corporation and the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation will be continuing this outreach with meetings in Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Santa Fe and elsewhere.
    We are seeking the best thinking and lessons learned in communities across the country, in order to improve and shape the design of the Social Innovation Fund.  We believe that the Social Innovation Fund will underscore the importance of innovation in solving our nation's most serious challenges, and the need to invest in "what works."
    While the fund alone won't solve our nation's challenges, it offers the hope of finding the next great idea or organization, and giving it the push it needs to reach more communities. 
    The federal government has often been a catalyst in spurring innovation—from the creation of the Internet to the development of community-based health centers.  Now, more than ever, we must help to find and support bold ideas and approaches that will improve the lives of millions of Americans.  The challenges we face today are simply too numerous and too complex to be tackled in isolation, community by community. 
    Again, we hope you'll join us in this effort by participating in a briefing call and question and answer session about the Social Innovation Fund hosted by the Corporation for National and Community Service from 1-2pm EST on Thursday, October 15, 2009.  To register for the call and secure call logistics, please visit  Send questions in advance to  We will address as many questions as time allows on the call.
    Nicola Goren is Acting CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service