Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation Blog

  • 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

  • Partnerships and Innovation in Colorado

    Colorado solar panels

    Photovoltaic (PV) panels at Columbine High School. April 15, 2011. (by Jeffco Public Schools)

    Last fall, Jeffco Public Schools and Golden Power Partners, LLC  (GPP) partnered with Renewable Social Benefit Funds (RSB) to bring solar energy to thirty Jefferson County, Colorado public schools.  Combining federal and state incentives, as well as Xcel Energy renewable energy rebates, Jeffco Public Schools pays no upfront costs, and the project is expected to save Jefferson County taxpayers $1 million in energy costs over the next 20 years.
    This January, the Jeffco solar project began to produce energy at district schools.  In total, there will be 30 systems operating on campuses across the district, producing a collective 4.1 million kilowatts a year.  While this is only a fraction of the total energy used annually, it’s a start.  “With declining resources, any money saved goes a long way, even if it’s just enough to save one or two teachers’ jobs – initially,” notes Tom MacDonnell, Energy Management Coordinator at Jeffco Public Schools.  “As the project progresses, we should receive more and more savings.”
    In fact, Jeffco has been exploring opportunities to decrease the environmental footprint of their schools for years.  The district started an energy conservation program in 1993 and has participated in EPA’s EnergyStar and Tools for Schools programs.  Around that same time, Kirk Stokes, VP of Business Development at GPP approached Jeffco about a solar program.  However, the program was cost-prohibitive.  It wasn’t until funding from RSB Funds helped cover the cost of installation and management of the solar panels that the project took off.

    The Jeffco solar project also enables the district to reallocate resources and strengthen its curriculum.  Next fall, Jeffco is anticipating the launch of Teach the Teachers, a classroom education piece that teaches students and teachers about solar power and other energy-saving measures.  Students will learn how to live a more sustainable lifestyle and develop an understanding of the science and technology behind their green choices.  The program, a collaboration with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), will introduce a curriculum in partnership with Jeffco’s science department in the 30 schools that are participating in the solar project.  Once the curriculum is developed and tested, Jeffco hopes that other schools will also adopt alternative renewable energy curriculums. 

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

  • Reflections on Service

    March was an important month for service.  Two events – the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps and the Points of Light event honoring President George H.W. Bush’s contribution to the modern service movement – highlighted service in an unprecedented way.  To commemorate these events, the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation dedicated its blog to share stories celebrating service.

    These stories came from many different leaders including, Harris Wofford, one of the principal architects of the Peace Corps, to prominent Returned Peace Corps Volunteers like Donna Shalala, to current Peace Corps Volunteers in Ghana and Mongolia, give us insight into what it is like to serve abroad.  Other blogs, like those by Christa Gannon and Iris Dooling, illustrate the impact that individuals can have on their communities and tell compelling stories of the need for service here at home.  They exemplify the powerful tradition of service in our country.

    As we go into National Volunteer Week, we look forward to continuing to share stories about volunteers and community leaders around the country who are making a difference. 

    Share your story with us!

    Sonal Shah is the Director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

  • You Give A Lot, You Get A Lot: A Story Celebrating Service

    Congressman Petri, Peace Corps

    Tom Petri during his Peace Corps service in Somalia. April 8, 2011. (by Office of Congressman Tom Petri)

    I responded to President Kennedy's call and applied to the Peace Corps in 1961.  Had I gone, I would have served in Ethiopia with Paul Tsongas, the late Democratic senator from Massachusetts.  But I got into Harvard Law School, and told the Peace Corps that perhaps I could do something law-related after I graduated.  The Peace Corps got back in touch with me three years later, and I went off to Somalia to help organize its legal code.

    Since that time Somalia has had terrible problems.  Obviously, the Peace Corps can't turn every nation away from disaster.  As representatives of the American people, our jobs was to assist the Somali people to improve their situation.  In the end, there were greater forces at work, but we helped to improve lives for a while and showed that Americans can work in a peaceful, cooperative spirit with others for the benefit of everybody.

    While in Somalia, I learned quite a bit about how the world works in practice and not just in theory, and these lessons have informed my public service ever since.

    For instance, we Americans tended to have a "We'll show you how to do it" attitude while the British had learned over decades of empire building that it was better to take an approach which said, "We'll work with you and learn from you and try to work together on things."

    An example of the American approach:  We saw the obvious need for water in the parched country, and set about drilling wells.  But no one really had ownership of the wells, which meant that they weren't maintained.  Instead, nomads would come to the wells, make use of them, and then fill them in before moving on so the next group wouldn't benefit.

    Another example:  To upgrade the livestock in the country, our aid people had the idea of bringing in good, productive Rhode Island Red chickens, without fully realizing that Somalis let their chickens roam and survive on the land - something our chickens were not equipped to do.

    We didn't want to just give chickens away, so we would make the Somalis bring in their scrawny chickens in exchange.

    The Somalis quickly discovered that our chickens were not particularly good at surviving, but were very good for eating.  So, they would always wait until it was time to kill a chicken, and then they would take one or more of their scrawny chickens and make an exchange for Rhode Island Reds, and then slaughter them.

    This did not have a long-term impact on improving Somali livestock.  But it certainly made a few Somali festivals a little happier.

    I learned from this that government programs should be thought through, and that unintended consequences should be expected.  I am sure that with time and experience, Peace Corps management has learned these lessons from early blunders as well.

    Even with the missteps, I knew we were doing important work.  I was with two other Peace Corps lawyers in Somalia, but there were also dozens of Volunteers in the country who were teachers, community health workers, and school builders.  They provided real services to their host communities, and they built personal relationships that aided understanding between the two nations.

    I can still remember the quizzical but interested reaction that so many people in Somalia had when they saw Americans engaged in a project:  "Who are you?"  "Why are you doing it?"  "Explain that to me again."

    The spirit was catching, and they would end up participating in all kinds of little volunteer activities and things that they hadn't thought of doing themselves, all working together.

    People ask me about the Peace Corps, and I always say that one of the things you have to remember about it is that you get a lot more than you give.  You're serving other people, and you can get great satisfaction from trying to make the world, or at least a small piece of it, a better place.  And while you're serving, you're learning.  You learn about another culture; and at the same time, you're learning about your own country and your own experiences because of the points of contrast.

    What a wonderful thing it is that America has now tens of thousands of people who have served in the Peace Corps, who have returned and are now in every walk of life - working in international organizations and in business, knowing different cultures and different languages - thereby providing a dimension to our own national life that we would otherwise not have.  We all benefit as a result.

    Congressman Tom Petri served in the Peace Corps in Somalia from 1966-67 and currently represents the 6th Congressional District of Wisconsin.

  • Kicking off Champions of Change

    Throughout the last month, we’ve celebrated stories of service.  In response, many of you from around the country have shared your stories of communities working together with us.  We have loved reading them and look forward to sharing them on our website in the coming weeks and months.

    Today, the White House launched “Champions of Change: Winning the Future Across America,” a weekly spotlight on individuals just like you who have done extraordinary things in their communities.  This week spotlights Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who have leveraged their experiences abroad to help their communities back home.  Similar to the series of blogs we have posted about Returned Volunteers, these videos capture the value of the Peace Corps experience, and the ease of translating lessons learned abroad into action in local communities. 

    We look forward to sharing more stories from all of you.  Keep them coming!

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

  • Commemorating 50 Years of Peace and Friendship Through Service

    Director Aaron Williams, Peace Corps

    Director Williams with Peace Corps Volunteers in Ghana, October 2010. Ghana and Tanzania were the first Peace Corps programs to welcome volunteers in 1961. April 1, 2011. (by Peace Corps)

    Peace Corps is as vibrant today as it was a half a century ago and continues to capture the imagination of Americans committed to service.  Our 50th Anniversary is an opportunity to honor our past and advance our mission of world peace and friendship through education and engagement.  As part of our commemoration, the Peace Corps is encouraging Americans to consider participating in a community service project here at home to honor the work of our Volunteers and the vision of public service as envisioned by President John F. Kennedy. 

    This past month, Peace Corps staff, returned Volunteers and our regional recruiting offices across the country commemorated the anniversary through local service projects, both in the United States and in Peace Corps host countries.  Our regional recruiting offices have initiated community-service projects, such as cleaning a community park, sorting donations at a food bank, serving lunch to veterans, and tutoring students in afterschool programs.  Peace Corps staff overseas have been working with Volunteers on a variety of projects in the fields of agriculture, business and information technology, education, environment, and public health.

    In addition to working together on community service projects, our 50th anniversary has been a time of reflection.  I have heard countless stories of service.  I met with many of our founders and original staff members who have spent the last 50 years working to increase service opportunities for all Americans.  I spoke with applicants who have been inspired by their local service experiences and are looking to make a difference globally.  I went to El Salvador and the Dominican Republic to meet with current volunteers who have been forever changed by their leadership experiences.  The sum total of all of these stories of service is the legacy of Peace Corps. 

    In our 50th year, over 8,600 Americans ranging in age from 21 to 86, and from all 50 states, are serving as Peace Corps volunteers in 77 countries.  Today, there are more Americans serving as Peace Corps Volunteers than any point in the last 40 years.  Our Volunteers represent the best America has to offer – they are grassroots ambassadors for the United States.  They represent America's values, generosity and hope.  Although much has changed since 1961, our mission to promote world peace and friendship through service remains the same. 

    For me, as for so many Volunteers, the Peace Corps experience was nothing short of transformative – with an impact that has lasted far beyond our years overseas. 

    Aaron S. Williams is the Director of the Peace Corps; he served as a Peace CorpsVolunteer in the Dominican Republic from 1967-1970.