Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation Blog

  • AmeriCorps: Developing the Next Generation of Public Servants

    My journey to this moment began almost twenty years ago. I saw a flier in the Black Student Center at Milwaukee Area Technical College promising to make me one of tomorrow’s leaders through an AmeriCorps program, Public Allies. Me? I was a teenage mother stringing together welfare, food stamps, student loans, work-study, and a child-care subsidy. If I failed, I knew, at least, I had tried.  Despite these overwhelming challenges, here I am today: an AmeriCorps alumna and Special Assistant to the President of the United States.

    The AmeriCorps program offered me hope in a time of economic and personal struggle.  It promised to prepare me for leadership through a full-time nonprofit apprenticeship and rigorous leadership training.  The program also provided life support, including much needed medical insurance, child care assistance, a tuition stipend, and a livable wage.  Most importantly, the program accepted me based on my future potential, not on my life situation at that time.  I had not graduated from college.  I was not top of my class in high school.  I had not played sports, volunteered, or done any “resume-building” extracurricular activities.  All I had, and all I needed, was an inclination and a desire to lead through service.

    During my time in AmeriCorps, I worked at the Youth Leadership Academy, a support program for African-American boys in grades three through eight.  These boys were also not model students.  They often had disciplinary problems at home and school.  But, they were accepted to the Academy based on their potential to lead. Using a systematic approach, the program would develop their discipline, teamwork, and academic achievement to build self-esteem and lead to more constructive behavior, better grades, and long-term success. These were my first mentees.  It was through this experience that I learned to appreciate potential, despite a person’s present circumstance.

  • AmeriCorps Alum Focuses on Helping Parents

    Ed. note: The Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation is commemorating AmeriCorps Week to celebrate the remarkable individuals who have served and their contributions to our country. This blog post introduces readers to Rhonda Ulmer, who works to educate parents so they can better help their students.

    Rhonda Ulmer Discusses University for Parents

    Rhonda Ulmer, left, discusses University for Parents during the “No Textbook Answer” documentary on Maryland Public Television with parent Brian Tucker Sr. and Meade High School Senior Charnele Thomas.

    I began my AmeriCorps journey when I was recruited into the program by the Community Action Agency in Annapolis, MD. My first job was to create a mentoring system for families of Head Start students. The next year, I continued serving in the program by training others in mentoring as a regional coordinator, and I returned for a third year with AmeriCorps to lead the program as a state coordinator with Volunteer Maryland.

    After my term ended, I began working at Johns Hopkins Health Care LLC, first as a Community Relations Coordinator and later as a Community Health Educator. But soon I would receive a call that would put me on another path. My children’s school, Van Bokkelen Elementary in Severn, MD, was in danger of a State takeover due to poor test performance and high student population turnover.

    A Parent Helping Parents

    Upon hearing about the school’s difficulties, I went to Rose Tasker, the Principal, and asked what I could do to help. She told me that challenges with parental involvement at the school were a major part of the problem. I found that not only were many of the children struggling, but that the parents were too. Many had a hard time supplying daily needs such as food, health care, and clothing for their families.

    When I learned this, I took a bigger role with the school’s PTA and began developing a strategy to improve the involvement of other parents. In doing so, I took everything I learned from AmeriCorps: first you get a plan, and then you find the key players involved. Throughout the project, I drew from the experiences of my first year of AmeriCorps service.

  • Commemorating AmeriCorps Week: Expanding Opportunity Through Service

    National service is one of America’s most hallowed traditions. As Alexis De Tocqueville noted in 1835, we are a nation of joiners. Ours is a country where people take collective action for the good of all.

    Since the early 1900s, government has created conditions that make it easier for people to join and give back. For example, President Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s that put people to work and contributed to “future national wealth.” President Kennedy called on young people to serve, domestically through VISTA and internationally through the Peace Corps. In 1994, President Clinton created AmeriCorps to bring together disparate national service opportunities and to scale our ability to strengthen communities through civic participation. Today, AmeriCorps is our nation’s most expansive service program. 

    Since its founding, more than 706,000 men and women have joined AmeriCorps and pledged to “get things done for America.” Across the nation, AmeriCorps service members have demonstrated commitment to strengthening our communities by joining programs such as Teach for America, City Year, Habitat for Humanity, Public Allies, and Youth Build. All of these are AmeriCorps initiatives. The selfless and caring citizens that join AmeriCorps confirm the adage that tomorrow can be better than today if we each extend a helping hand to our neighbors.

  • The President’s Budget and Charitable Contributions: Driving Revenue and Demonstrating Fairness to Benefit America

    Earlier this week, President Obama sent to Congress his budget proposal for the 2013 fiscal year. It is a bold proposal that demonstrates the President’s commitment to create an American economy that is built to last, one where job creation flourishes as a result of strategic investments to support entrepreneurship, infrastructure, and innovation–and one in which we restore fiscal responsibility and put the Budget on a sustainable path.  As we move forward to boost the economy and to strengthen our communities, nonprofit organizations have a vital role to play. 

    Reflecting the Importance of Charitable Giving Through Fundamental Tax Reform

    The President has called for fundamental reforms that would cut rates and tax complexity, cut unnecessary tax expenditures, cut the deficit, and observe the Buffett rule—that no one making more than $1 million should pay less as a share of their income in taxes than middle class families.

    This will require tough choices.  But as we make those tough choices, the Administration recognizes the importance of tax incentives for charity.

    That’s why we chose to make clear that the Buffett Rule should not disadvantage individuals who make large contributions to charity, while exempting charitable deductions from the list of tax breaks that should be eliminated for millionaires. In doing so, the charitable deduction is the only major tax benefit exempted from both of these two proposals we put forward as part of tax reform.

    Targeted Reduction in the Value of Deductions and Exclusions as Part of a Balanced Framework of Deficit Reduction

    Even as the President has put forward principles for comprehensive tax reform, his Budget also includes a set of specific proposals as part of a down payment towards a balanced deficit reduction plan. One of the ideas we’ve put forward as part of that down payment is limiting itemized deductions for the highest-income earners. 

  • A Look Back at Joplin: United We Succeed

    Eight months ago, one of the deadliest tornados in U.S. history touched down in Joplin, Missouri, and took the lives of more than 160 residents and destroyed thousands of homes.  The federal response began immediately. Within hours, Federal Emergency Management Agency teams were on the ground to work hand in hand with state and local officials to assist in response and recovery. AmeriCorps members also raced to the scene as well. Members from AmeriCorps St. Louis Emergency Response Team and the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) arrived in Joplin, and immediately began working with local authorities to assist in search and rescue.

    Yesterday, the Missouri House of Representative passed a bipartisan resolution honoring the more than 300 AmeriCorps members from across the country who have played an indispensable role in helping the cities of Joplin and Duquesne recover. They provided homeowner assistance and casework, helped clear debris, and provided support to the Missouri Highway Patrol and the Joplin Police Department with missing person inquiries.

    But these AmeriCorps members were certainly not alone. More than 60,000 volunteers ranging from average citizens who wanted to help to active duty military to faith-based groups from across the country have been an indispensable source of support for the people of Joplin. Managed and supported by AmeriCorps members, these volunteers have provided more than 579,000 hours of service and contributed to $17.7 million of donated resources to more than 2,000 households.

  • Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Through Service

    Monuments are built to those who change the course of history. It is right and fitting that a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. now stands in the heart of our nation’s Capital.  Even as we renew our understanding of Dr. King’s legacy by visiting this beautiful monument; we can honor the legacy of Dr. King by following his example, by serving and volunteering in our communities.

    Dr. King called service the “new definition of greatness.” He believed that the work we undertake on behalf of others is the most important work of all. He devoted his life to this notion – advancing equality, social justice and economic opportunity for all Americans.  Dr. King challenged all of us to do our part to build a more perfect union.

    That is why, for nearly two decades, the nation has marked the life of Dr. King with a national Day of Service. Today, Americans from every state will deliver meals, refurbish schools and community centers, collect food and clothing, sign up mentors, support veterans and military families, and more. Thousands of AmeriCorps and Senior Corps members will lend a hand to community-based projects. Individuals and groups, of all ages and backgrounds, will come together – as Dr. King would have wanted – in service.