Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation Blog

  • 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!

  • Resilient and Sustainable Economies in the Gulf Coast

    Solar Panels at Charlotte High School

    Solar Panels at Charlotte High School – the first full campus LEED Gold Certified public school in the Southeast. April 22, 2011. (by Charlotte County, FL)

    This week marked the one year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.  Throughout the past year, communities across the Gulf coast have worked hard to diversify their economies to be more resilient.  The Clean Economy Development Center (CEDC) has established a model of collaboration that brings together local communities, federal agencies, nonprofits, and businesses to rebuild neighborhoods to be more environmentally and economically sustainable. 
    Charlotte County recently hosted the “CEDC Clean Economy Roadshow,” spotlighting their innovative recovery work.  Charlotte County, on Florida’s west coast, is home to almost 160,000 residents.  Over the past seven years, the County’s primary industries of construction and tourism have struggled from the economic recession, three hurricanes, and the BP oil spill.  Jason Stoltzfus, Program Liaison for Charlotte County, notes that by 2010 the unemployment rate was 13% and property values had gone down by 42%.  In response, the county has worked hard to build a more sustainable economy, job market, and tax base by diversifying the County’s economic focus to include green technologies, renewable energy, medical information technology and life sciences. 
    Charlotte County has partnered with local businesses and leveraged FEMA funding to assist with rebuilding a more resilient community.  Sustainability and energy are at the core of the County recovery plan – creating sustainable businesses and jobs while reducing energy needs and costs.  Some of their innovative projects include:
    LEED Buildings
    In the rebuilding process following Hurricane Charley, five of the public schools earned LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification.  Charlotte High School is the first full campus LEED certified public high school in the Southeastern United States.
    Annual Energy Conference
    The County hosts a two day conference – the Green Future Expo and Energy Options Conference – that promotes green energy, sustainable construction and economic growth.  Over 3,000 people have attended the conference.
    Solar Hot Water Service
    Through a partnership with a local business, the County is in the process of establishing a Solar Hot Water Service program that will provide residents a low cost method for lowering their utility bills with no upfront costs.  The program will generate jobs, provide the county with additional revenue through a profit share, and enable residents to switch to solar energy with no upfront or additional cost.
    Babcock Ranch
    The County is working with the legislature to permit the development of Babcock Ranch – the first city planned to be 100% powered by solar energy.  The majority of the power would be generated by the largest on-site solar photovoltaic facility in the world.
    Charlotte County is a small but mighty county with a clear vision of how to rebuild in a manner that is both sustainable and more resilient to future disasters.  Next month, Stoltzfus will join leaders from communities across the Gulf Coast to share ideas and experiences at the Gulf Coast Sustainable Economies Leadership Academy.  CEDC is partnering with the Corporation for National and Community Service and the Institute for Sustainable Communities will be hosting a free training, peer learning and technical assistance workshop in New Orleans. The goal is to help catalyze community-based sustainable development in Gulf Coast communities.
    Divya Kumaraiah is the Policy Assistant to the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

  • Honoring Eli J. Segal – A True Entrepreneur

    Today marks the two year anniversary for the Serve America Act.  As we celebrate the progress we’ve made in looking to community solutions and innovation to address our nation’s greatest challenges, we also reflect on those who have paved the way for service.

    Last month, Melody Barnes, Director of the Domestic Policy Council, had the honor of addressing students, faculty and community members at Brandeis University for the annual Eli J. Segal Memorial Lecture

    Eli J. Segal was both a respected businessman and a dedicated public servant.  In the 2007 Inaugural Segal Memorial Lecture, President Clinton remembered his friend and colleague as a true entrepreneur – a man who saw problems as opportunities for new solutions.  He showed us that service could be an integral part of one’s life, not just something to squeeze into limited spare time.

    Segal was a doer – someone who turned his visions into reality.  An aide to President Clinton, Segal was instrumental in driving several of the Clinton Administration’s most praised projects.  He helped create AmeriCorps – the national service program that today deploys 85,000 Americans to serve in communities across the country – and he went on to serve as the first CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the agency established to run the federal service programs.  Nelson Mandela turned to the “father of AmeriCorps” for uniting post-apartheid South Africa through service.  Segal and President Clinton helped realize Mandela’s vision of a black and white youth serving side by side through the creation of City Year-South Africa.  During the overhaul of the federal welfare system, Segal was the “chief implementer” – finding 20,000 companies to move 1 million Americans from welfare to work.

    In her remarks highlighting Segal’s legacy, Barnes said:

    "Coast to coast, country to country, Eli believed ordinary citizens could be change agents empowered to strengthen their communities, their country, and the world.  And at a time when our world is changing so quickly – when some are looking for what divides us rather than what brings us together – it is the best time to honor a person who believed in the humanity that exists in all of us – humanity that ultimately resists division and instead, brings us closer to work for the common good."

    Barnes remembered past Presidents who had called on our nation to serve, and she relayed President Obama’s call for Americans to integrate service into their lives.

    “…We have a real opportunity to position America to win the future.  This is the time to build new models of civic engagement – and if past is prologue, we will.  Historically, we’ve responded boldly in times of challenge by tapping into our creativity and ingenuity.  And, we’ve turned to community – rather than away from it – for solutions.”

    The Administration understands that government does not and should not have all the answers.  Rather, solutions to the major challenges that we face are going to be overcome by ordinary citizens across the country taking action to improve their communities.

    Tell us how you are integrating service into your life.

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

  • Growing Strong Communities in Detroit

    Detroit Before and After

    A lot transformed by the Georgia Street Community Collective - before and after. April 15, 2011. (by Georgia Street Community Collective)

    There are two tales of Detroit – one of vacant lots and unemployment, the other of strong communities and regeneration.  As urban planners and city officials work to maintain essential infrastructure for the more than 740,000 city residents, Mark Covington turns empty lots into community assets.  He says “Detroit is peaceful because it’s not a typical city – there is so much space between the houses and my neighbors are people I grew up with.”

    In 2008 Mark Covington lost his job and moved back to his childhood home in Detroit.  That spring, he noticed that melting snow was catching on garbage and flooding a lot near his home that had been empty for decades.  He started picking up the trash, but soon realized that removing debris alone would not stop people from using empty lots as dumping grounds.  He convinced his mother and a friend to help him clean up the lot and plant a garden.  As they spent more time in the garden, curious neighbors stopped by and began sharing their stories with Mark and with each other.  He talked to many people with difficult choices – families forced to decide between paying electricity bills, purchasing groceries, and filling prescriptions.  While the garden became a source of nutritious food, the real power of the garden was in bringing neighbors together.

    Collective community, Detroit

    Neighborhood children gather at the Georgia Street Community Collective. April 15, 2011. (by Georgia Street Community Collective)

    Through persistence and dedication, what started as one man cleaning up an empty lot has transformed into a community movement – The Georgia Street Community Collective.  A neighbor sent her foster children to help in the garden.  They brought along a few friends, and soon Mark found himself acting as a mentor to the children.  As more people became involved and new ideas were suggested, he helped to turn these visions into reality.  Eventually, Mark and the Collective took on the responsibility of cleaning up and maintaining 18 different lots.  Three became community gardens and one was turned into an orchard.  In the summer, some lots are even used as outdoor movie theaters.  The Collective has been so successful in bringing the community together that it event transformed a once-vacant building into a multi-purpose community room where neighbors help students with homework and host community holiday dinners.  

    Over the past three years, Mark has received encouragement from unexpected places.  He started out keeping a journal on DetroitYES!, sharing his story and regularly updating the blog with the Collective’s growth.  His followers quickly grew, and some even sent donations.  A record label from England was so inspired by Mark that they came to Detroit and spent a day transforming an empty lot into a "pocket park," which is a small green space for public use.  Initially neighbors were skeptical, but his dedication was contagious.  To others who want to make a difference in their neighborhoods, Mark says “Go for it.  Don’t give up.  If you can’t get something one way, then try something else.”

    Mark misses the days of his childhood when there were mom and pop shops and a car dealership in his neighborhood.  He hopes that the work of the Georgia Street Community Collective might spur development in the area.  Using produce from the gardens, he hopes to create opportunities for neighborhood kids to sell produce at local markets.  Someday he might even grow the Collective into a small business.  But for now, Mark enjoys just giving back to his community.  He said “I’m probably more at peace in these past three years than I have been in my whole life.”

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