Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation Blog

  • 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.

  • Champions of Change: Making a Difference through Service and Innovation

    Ed. Note: Champions of Change is a weekly initiative to highlight Americans who are making an impact in their communities and helping our country rise to meet the many challenges of the 21st century.

    Last week, we gathered fourteen inspirational citizens to hear about their tireless efforts to renew and strengthen their communities through service and innovation. We met in New Orleans, the host city for the 2011 National Conference on Volunteering and Service, an annual convening of over 4,000 people working to make a difference in the lives of others. President Barack Obama has called New Orleans a “symbol of resilience and community”—and what better place to highlight these Champions of Change than the Crescent City and the living laboratory for social innovation and civic participation that it has become.

    Each of this week’s Champions exemplifies our Administration’s firm belief that the best ideas really do come from outside of Washington—from local communities across the country where, everyday, individuals are taking on our most pressing social challenges and developing solutions that work. From a twelve-year old environmental activist to established and highly regarded non-profit leaders, these Champions are making an extraordinary impact in communities, in schools, and in the workplace. They are building homes, creating opportunities for young people, veterans, and immigrants, and helping disaster victims rebuild their lives. Through their actions, they demonstrate that citizen leadership is critical to “winning the future.” They are redefining civic participation in the 21st century.

    Our Administration is investing in these community solutions. Many of the Champions of Change are recipients of Social Innovation Fund grants—YouthBuild USA, the Delta Workforce Funding Collaborative, and iMentor—and we are so excited by the work that they are doing on the ground. Others are partnering with national service programs like VISTA and AmeriCorps, and delivering critical services to help communities recover and rebuild from disasters and to support the reintegration of veterans in our society—Equal Justice Works, Alabama State Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, and the Washington Commission for National and Community Service.

    I would be remiss if I did not mention the St. Bernard Project. This New Orleans non-profit has drawn volunteers from across the country to rebuild hundreds of homes throughout St. Bernard Parish and the Lower Ninth Ward. It’s been quite an extraordinary example of “shared responsibility” and the possibilities that can come from citizens pulling together around a common goal. The President once noted that he saw in the St. Bernard Project “the symbol that this city has become.” And, indeed, the work of each of these Champions has such resonance.

    Please visit the Champions of Change website to learn more about these individuals and their work. We hope these Champions and their causes will inspire and energize you to make a difference in your own communities, and, by doing so, to win the future.

    Marta Urquilla is the Senior Policy Advisor to the White House Domestic Policy Council’s Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.

  • Volunteers Prove Essential to Disaster Response

    CNCS Disaster Services Unit

    Volunteers help gut homes, aiding in recovery efforts from recent storms. May 4, 2011. (by Corporation for National and Community Service)

    Over the past few weeks, a series of devastating tornadoes swept across the country.  From Mississippi to Virginia, communities are suffering great losses.  The Corporation for National and Community Service’s (CNCS) Disaster Services Unit rapidly mobilized thousands of volunteers to assist local recovery efforts.  

    Working closely with the State Service Commissions and FEMA, CNCS has built partnerships across public and private sectors to provide critical services to communities in need.  In Kentucky, AmeriCorps members support local Red Cross shelters.  In St. Louis, AmeriCorps Safety Service Corps deployed members to remove trees from roofs and tarp houses to keep out the rain.  Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) and AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) volunteers are providing services such as  checking on the welfare of affected residents, clearing debris, delivering clean water, assisting residents with relocation, distributing donations, organizing sandbag efforts to prevent flooding, transporting elderly residents to medical facilities, and providing case management support.

    For Kelly DeGraff, the Senior Advisor for Disaster Services at CNCS, the agency's response to the tornadoes in Mississippi was particularly poignant.  In less than 24 hours after the tornado struck Jackson, MS, CNCS volunteers were on the ground serving affected residents.  A team of six NCCC members from the Southern Region campus in Vicksburg, MS helped to feed residents and distribute supplies.  For nearly a week, team Leader Moses Moua, 23, of Orlando, FL and Corps Member Michael Brown, 20, of Indianapolis, IN provided day and night staffing at the American Red Cross shelter in Clinton, MS.

    While working in the shelter, Moua and Brown spent time with Frelicia May and her family of sixteen.  May, her husband, sister, children and grandchildren were painfully familiar with being in a shelter following a storm.  After losing everything during Hurricane Katrina, they had drifted to several places in Louisiana and Texas before settling near her family in Jackson, MS.  On April 15, when the tornado struck May’s new home, she gathered the few things she could salvage and headed to her sister’s two-bedroom apartment.  They quickly realized that the cramped apartment would not provide the large family sufficient space or resources to get back on their feet.

    The May family took refuge in the American Red Cross shelter where Moua and Brown welcomed them.  After a few days at the shelter, May spoke affectionately of the NCCC members – “We love them.  They laugh and talk to us and treat us like family.  Michael is really good with the kids.”  In addition to providing the families with basic needs, Brown has been playing tic-tac-toe, basketball, coloring, and reading to the 13 children.

    “I can do a lot of things that I couldn’t do before, like build things.  I knew exactly what to do when I got to this shelter because we had training on it,” said Brown.  He said that being an NCCC volunteer has taught him a lot of skills and given him training that he didn’t know he would utilize.  It has also taught him the power of giving back.

    Throughout the year, CNCS engages more than 1.5 million Americans of all ages and backgrounds in service.  Senior Corps, AmeriCorps State and National, and the AmeriCorps NCCC volunteers have been particularly active in responding to the recent disasters.  These programs play an essential role assisting communities responding to a disaster.  CNCS volunteer programs provide a great deal of value both to the communities in which they serve and the volunteers themselves. 

    For more information, contact the CNCS Disaster Services Unit at

    Divya Kumaraiah is the Policy Assistant to the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

  • Spotlight on Community Colleges Vying for Prize

    Last October, at the first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges, President Obama announced the $1 million Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, a new, privately-funded prize to recognize, reward, and inspire outstanding outcomes in community colleges nationwide. 

    Yesterday, Dr. Jill Biden and Secretary Arne Duncan congratulated the 120 community colleges that – due to exceptional student outcomes – were selected by the Aspen Institute to compete for the inaugural $1 million purse.  In Round Two, the Aspen Institute will invite these 120 eligible institutions to submit applications containing additional detailed data on completion rates, labor market outcomes (employment and earnings), and student learning outcomes.  Eight to ten finalists will be named in September and – following campus visits by Aspen in the Fall - prize winners will be announced in December.

    Excellence in community colleges is critical to reaching President Obama’s goal that the U.S. lead the world in college graduates by 2020 and to preparing the American workforce to compete in the global economy.

  • Growing Green Neighborhoods Through Youth Engagement

    Groundwork Somerville, youth gardening

    Groundwork Somerville teens tending and harvesting a garden and learning about urban agriculture. April 25, 2011. (by Chelsea Clarke, Groundwork Somerville)

    In 2010, Chelsea Clarke joined Groundwork Somerville (GWS), a nonprofit that promotes sustainable community development and revitalization in Somerville, MA.  It was a “giant leap of faith,” for the environmental consultant, but it turned out to be the perfect blend of her passions and the incredible investment in her own community she had been yearning.

    Clarke began at GWS as a Green Team supervisor.  Green Team is an environmental job corps that employs youth ages 14-17 to learn about and practice environmental stewardship, educate communities on green space issues, and conduct community health outreach.  The youth also maintain the upkeep of school gardens and harvest and sell produce at local farmers’ markets.  Green Team helps youth develop strong interpersonal skills through their team, with their supervisor, and through interactions with farmers’ market customers.  “You can really see them grow over time,” gushes Clarke.  “Just a few weeks ago, we took some of the teens to Philadelphia for the 2011 EPA Brownfields Conference.  It was amazing to see someone who started out as a shy kid get up and present so confidently at a national conference.”

    Now a community organizer, Clarke works more extensively within the neighborhood, primarily with the Green Line/Green Spaces Team.  This team concentrates on the planning and use of lands for the extension of the Boston metro system through Somerville, specifically focusing on the project’s affect on urban youth.  Clarke explains that “key issue areas for city youth are surprisingly similar to those of older demographics” – youth are just as concerned with sustainability, transportation affordability, and efficiency as their parents.

    Groundwork Somerville, Garden Youth Crew

    Garden Youth Crew gets their hands dirty and learn about urban agriculture in Somerville. April 22, 2011. (by Chelsea Clarke, Groundwork Somerville)

    GWS also has programs for younger children as well as the broader community.  The Schoolyard Gardens Program and Garden Youth Crew teach urban kids about their ecosystem and the agricultural practices behind the food they eat.  The Community Corridor Planning program aims to make community planning processes inclusive and advocate for health equity and local jobs.  The Somerville SoilCycle picks up compost for community members and uses the fresh soil from the composting for school gardens.  Finally, the “Spring into Action!” program gives 2nd and 3rd grade Somerville students a chance to spend their spring breaks learning about their environment, participating in outdoor physical activities, and learning to prepare balanced meals.

    Groundwork Somerville is part of the national Groundwork USA network, which works to improve neighborhoods that have experienced long-term decline in their physical and social environments.

    Share your story about a transformative person or organization in your community!