Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation Blog

  • 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

  • Closing The Loop: A Story Celebrating Service

    Carson, Survey Equipment - Peace Corps

    Loading up survey equipment and heading out to a rural Honduran village. March 29, 2011. (by Jon Carson)

    This last Sunday, in between playing with my two year old and helping my wife with our new baby, I got a call from my friend Dagoberto Nunez that brought back a flood of memories from my two years of service as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

    The first time I met Dagoberto I was a Peace Corps Volunteer newly arrived in Honduras.  I was assigned to work on water and sanitation projects in the southern part of the country, helping Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) that provided the funds to build water systems in small rural villages.  I lived in the central city of Choluteca and would ride out by bus, pickup, or the occasional mule, to villages to work on the water projects.  I would complete a land survey of the village, design the system, and then hand it all over to a Maestro de Obra, or project manager, who would actually supervise the construction of the water system. 

    Dagoberto was a Maestro, and on a visit early in my service to a project under construction, I first got to see him in action. 

    Installing a water system involves installing miles of plastic and metal tubing, building multiple concrete structures to capture and store the spring or ground water, building a 10,000 gallon (or more) tank to hold the water, and then installing a distribution system through the village with a water tap for everyone.  All of the labor to build and install the system was volunteered by the villagers receiving the system.  In order to manage one of these projects, a Maestro de Obra had to be a master craftsman, trainer and coach to the villagers who had never built one of these systems before, and have the political savvy to deal with the local governments and village politics that might get in the way of finishing a project.

    Dagoberto was all of these, and the best Maestro de Obra I worked with during my two years in Honduras.  My basic job as the surveyor and engineer was to make sure the water could get from Point A to Point B.  The moment of truth would come after months of backbreaking labor by the villagers: digging a three foot trench by hand from the spring to the tank location, carrying hundreds of pipes over hills and across ravines, and installing them.  Then you turn on the valve, and wait to see if water shows up at the other end.

    The picture below is from one of those moments about a year into my service.  Dagoberto stood next to the pipe as water poured out onto the tank site of one of the toughest surveys and designs I’d completed.  I remember asking myself at that moment: with everything else he and other local Maestro de Obra’s were capable of, why couldn’t they also learn how to do my part of it?

    Dagoberto, Carson - Peace Corps

    Dagoberto showing off a water pipe successfully bringing water to a village. March 29, 2011. (by Jon Carson)

    It turned out that they could, and that the major obstacle in their way was access to the surveying equipment needed and someone to teach them how to use it.  While I continued to complete surveys myself in my second year of Peace Corps service, I spent the majority of my time helping Dagoberto and other local Maestro de Obra’s become surveyors themselves.  I wrote to engineering companies in the United States and received half a dozen donated surveying instruments that we could use.  I then partnered with another local Peace Corps Volunteer, David Lawler, to develop an eight week long beginners surveying course that the local non-profit community college sponsored.  Thirty local Hondurans enrolled.  Eight weeks later, 25 of them graduated.  After the course, I spent extra time out in the field with a small group of the graduates who planned to form a small cooperative of surveyors utilizing the donated equipment.

    When you are completing a land survey like the ones we did to design water systems, the only way you know the accuracy of your measurements is to survey in a large circle and make your way back to the point you started from.  This is called “closing the loop”.  The only problem is that you don’t know how you did until you take the measurements back and make all the calculations.  The day I went with Dagoberto and his team out to a small village for their first survey, I was more nervous than they were.  For an entire day I watched quietly and anxiously as they made their way from the spring in the mountains down to the local village, making hundreds of measurements.  My one requirement was that they survey back up to the starting point to “close the loop” so we could see how they did. 

    A long and dusty bus ride back down to my house and a couple hours of data entry later, I had my answer:  Dagoberto and his team had nailed it.  Five miles of measurements across the village, and they were accurate to within inches.  I was so excited I ran outside and hugged one of the neighbor kids playing in the street.

    That was 5 years ago.  Dagoberto and his team are still surveying and partnering with NGOs who are supporting the water projects.  Now instead of receiving a survey for free, villages have to raise the money to pay Dagoberto and his team for a survey.  This invariably means they take the survey and water project more seriously because they had to pay for it, which leads ultimately to a better water system, and a better approach to community development. 

    Most returned Peace Corps Volunteers will tell you that they get more out of their service for many years afterwards than they feel they gave to their host country; I couldn’t agree more.  And getting a call from Dagoberto on a Sunday morning to “close the loop” was one of those moments.

    Jon Carson served in Honduras from 2004-2006 and is now the Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement

  • Peace Corps Reflects the Diversity of America: A Story Celebrating Service

    C.D. Glin Peace Corps

    Peace Corps Volunteer C.D. Glin with children in his South African community, 1997 March 29, 2011. (by Peace Corps)

    Ed. Note: In October 1994, Presidents Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela met to seal a bond of friendship and a promise to work together to transform South Africa from a divided nation to one united by its commitment to build a democratic, nonracially based society.  The Peace Corps was a small but important part of that agreement.  Today there are 152 Peace Corps Volunteers in South Africa working in the fields of education and NGO development.

    As long as I can remember, I have aspired to live and work in Africa.  As a young African American growing up, I wrote anti-apartheid rap songs in high school, interned with an Africa advocacy group, and even shook Nelson Mandela’s hand at a reception during my junior year of college at Howard University.
    While interning in Accra in 1994, I had the opportunity to meet Peace Corps Volunteers serving in Ghana.  They were community leaders welcomed by Ghanian communities, communicating in local languages and sharing new ideas.

    Once learning about Peace Corps service, I only had two thoughts: Why hadn’t I heard about this sooner? And: Where could I sign up?  That year, President Mandela invited the Peace Corps to South Africa and asked for a Volunteer group that truly reflected the diversity of America.

    In January 1997, the Peace Corps swore-in the first group of 35 Volunteers going to South Africa, and I was among them.  The assignment for our group was in elementary school education, serving in South Africa’s Northern Province (now renamed Limpopo Province) as liaisons, advisors and trainers for local teachers.  The goal was to help implement a new national education curriculum that offered parity among people and replaced the current curriculum, which was based on ethnicity, race, and color.

    To better communicate with my community, I learned an African language, Northern Sotho.  I took pride in learning a new language and culture, though it came with some frustration; I would inevitably be drawn into the same questions.

    “Where are you from?”

    “I’m from the States,” I’d reply.

    “No, I mean where are you really from?”

    “From the States,” I’d say again, this time more emphatically.

    Then came looks of confusion and annoyance. Why, they wondered, would I deny my heritage and language? Surely I was African. They would try a new tack.

    “Well, where are your parents from?”

    And on and on it went.

    These conversations of heritage and where I came from often led to discussions about slavery and the number of people of African descent in the United States.  As I gave impromptu history lessons, I always mentioned the similarities I saw between South Africa and the United States and the struggle for racial equality.  Exactly 40 years after Brown vs. Board of Education struck down “separate but equal” in the United States, apartheid was struck down with the first national multi-ethnic democratic election in South Africa’s history.  In response to frustrations expressed that their personal circumstances hadn’t immediately changed, even though the government had, I would explain that slavery in America was followed by a reconstruction period and the civil rights movement.

    I feel privileged to have played a small part in South Africa’s civil rights movement as it transitioned into a democracy, and I am grateful that the Peace Corps gave me this opportunity.  As the Director of Intergovernmental Affairs and Partnerships at the Peace Corps, and a former staff member of the Office of Minority Recruitment at the Peace Corps, I continue to support Peace Corps’ efforts to ensure that Volunteers reflect the face of America and that everyone is provided with opportunity to serve.

    C.D. Glin served in South Africa from 1997-1999 and currently, is the Director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and Partnerships with the Peace Corps.