Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation Blog

  • 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.

  • Lessons learned: A Story Celebrating Service

    Congreeman Honda serving in the Peace Corps

    Mike Honda meets with community leaders in El Salvador as part of his Peace Corps volunteer efforts to build local schools and hospitals. March 31, 2011. (by Congressman Mike Honda)

    My time in El Salvador as a Peace Corp Volunteer taught me so much.

    I went into the Corps as a college student shy of graduation with little direction; I emerged with the confidence that my emotional, psychological, and physical limits had been pushed, plied, and ultimately surpassed.

    I went into the Corps driven by the shame of my youthful lack of direction; I emerged determined to do something about the pervasive poverty surrounding me.

    I went into the Corps speaking one language; I emerged speaking another: Spanish, a gift that introduced me to a new world, gave me a new way of understanding other cultures and helped me connect to constituents in California.

    The Peace Corps got me back to the basics, and I realized that every day is a gift to be used wisely.  That lesson is what guides me now in Congress.

    This year, as we celebrate the Peace Corps’ 50th Anniversary and its countless contributions to communities worldwide, let us remember Sargent Shriver’s selfless commitment and visionary leadership.  He created a pioneering organization that provides opportunities for young Americans to serve as ambassadors, promoting peace and friendship around the world.

    As the founder and first director of the Peace Corps, Shriver’s impassioned call to help those in need will have a lasting impression on past, present, and future Peace Corps Volunteers who accept the call to serve the international community.  Shriver put it best when he said, “The Peace Corps represents some, if not all, of the best virtues in this society.  It stands for everything that America has ever stood for.  It stands for everything we believe in and hope to achieve in the world.”

    I couldn't agree more.

    Congressman Mike Honda served in the Peace Corps in El Salvador from 1965-67 and currently represents the 15th Congressional District of California.

  • Cesar Chavez - A Role Model for Service

    Editor's Note: This post was originally posted on the National Service Blog.

    Cesar Chavez (1927 – 1993) was an American farm worker, labor leader, and civil rights activist. His birthday, March 31st, is a state holiday in California and a number of other states and is also celebrated by many as a day to promote service to the community in honor of his life and work.

    Markita Fortune, a Bay Area Youth Agency Consortium AmeriCorps member from California, incorporated Cesar Chavez’s core values into the work she does with 5th graders at a school in Menlo Park, CA.

    Most of the youth are of African American and Latino descent and often experience bullying at school. "I thought that teaching them about the Core Values of Cesar Chavez might help them realize that it is better to work together than against each other,” said Fortune.

    When asked if they knew of Chavez, a few of the 5th graders raised their hands but many simply shook their heads no. After taking a quiz and learning more about Cesar Chavez, the young people began to notice a connection between themselves and his work.

    “When they started going over the answers, the youth were really excited and asked lots of questions about the things that Cesar Chavez did for the community,” said Fortune. “They realized that he worked in communities that were similar to theirs.”

    Fortune then introduced her students to Cesar Chavez’s core values. The group discussed how the values could be used in their after-school program and decided to focus on three values a week, beginning with Acceptance of All People, Celebrating Community, and Non-Violence. When asked why they selected those values, the youth conveyed a hope that these core values would help address the bullying problem.

    “I have definitely noticed a change in the youth since we began the Cesar Chavez curriculum,” noted Fortune. “They have become kinder to one another and have been helpful around the school. I am grateful that I have this as a tool to strengthen my youth development skills.”

    On January 12, 1990, shortly before the MLK Day holiday, Cesar Chavez said, “My friends, today we honor a giant among men: today we honor the reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was a powerful figure of destiny, of courage, of sacrifice, and of vision. Few people in the long history of this nation can rival his accomplishment, his reason, or his selfless dedication to the cause of peace and social justice. Today we honor a wise teacher, an inspiring leader, and a true visionary, but to truly honor Dr. King we must do more than say words of praise. We must learn his lessons and put his views into practice, so that we may truly be free at last.”

    You can serve on Cesar Chavez Day and honor Dr. King together, by making it part of the MLK 25 Challenge, an ongoing initiative to honor the 25th anniversary of the King Holiday.

    Christina Markle is a former part-time AmeriCorps Bonner Leader and a current John Gardner fellow from UC Berkeley at the Corporation for National and Community Service