Shirley Sagawa’s foray into national service happened by accident. Hired straight out of law school to work in Senator Ted Kennedy’s office, she was assigned to a national service bill. Her supervisor had hoped to kill it by passing it on to the most junior employee but Sagawa pursued it vigorously and helped get it passed.
Since that time, Sagawa has gone onto author several books about the role of national service and volunteerism as well as work in both the first Bush and Clinton administrations. She was instrumental in drafting legislation that led the creation of AmeriCorps. On October 6th, Sagawa spoke about her latest book The American Way to Change: How National Service and Volunteers Are Transforming America in a room full of City Year fellows—a veritable sea of red and khaki.
“I wanted to write this book so policy makers who are trying to solve everything from poverty to global warming to education can actually have some really concrete examples of what volunteers and national service can do,” she said. To that end, Sagawa set forth and found innovative programs that are having significant impacts.
Throughout her half hour speech, Sagawa highlighted programs that have had appreciable impacts or at least demonstrate potential. KaBOOM, for example, helps build playgrounds in underprivileged areas. Their success, according to Sagawa, is attributable to the fact that they draw on the “amazing assets that communities possess.” The organization works in concert with the locals instead of merely swooping in and plunking down a jungle gym. The result—the playgrounds designed and built with the help of the intended users are meticulously maintained whereas the municipal ones, which were not constructed with communal input, go unused and fall into disrepair.
Another program she noted was a prison entrepreneurship program where MBA go into prisons to help inmates to draw up business plans to be implemented post release. Convicted felons are often passed over for jobs so it behooves them to start their own businesses. They are also more likely to hire other former prisoners. If this program turns out to be successful, it could become an excellent tool for reintegrating inmates into society.
Joel Berg, head of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, who had introduced Ms. Sagawa as the “Mother of the National Service Movement,” also spoke. Berg, like Sagawa, believes that national service is about solving big problems. Though many experience personal growth and satisfaction as a result of their volunteer work, this is hardly the goal. “We don’t have a military to develop young men and women. We have it to accomplish big things.”
And so it should be for service and volunteer work. In particular, Berg would like to see advocacy be considered a vital part of service work. “It’s wonderful if a school can’t afford an extra counselor for a volunteer to come in and do that but I would push back and say—why in a country with 400 billionaires can our schools not afford guidance counselors when the rich are paying an effective tax rate of 275? I think we got look at this in a bigger picture. All of the soup kitchens and food pantries in America provide 1/20 of what the federal nutrition safety net does. So when people ask why are you talking about government instead of community? I say part of our job is to work so that government better represents community… I say that government working effectively is the most efficient way of neighbors helping neighbors.”
And of course, Repair’s CEO Jon Rosenberg spoke to our organization’s mission: To mobilize six million American Jews to service and make it a defining element of American Jewish life. In addition to bringing more Jews to volunteer work through service trips and alternative spring breaks, which he described as “door openers,” he also hopes to lend Repair’s and the Jewish community’s resources to other groups to enable these agencies to become “service enterprises.”
In addition to organizational elders, one of the young service leaders, Matt Thomas, spoke to the room. It is his second year with City Year, which is a yearlong program that places recent college graduates in schools to help in classrooms and mentor students. Professionals, Sagawa had noted earlier, have limited time. A social worker has a case load that she must get through. A teacher has a classroom full of students and cannot focus exclusively on one struggling student. The advantage a volunteer often has is time.
Thomas, now a team leader who oversees ten City Year fellows he now oversees, spent his first years lavishing extra attention on those who needed it. During his first year, he was stationed in an ESL classroom in Long Island City, Queens, with a dropout rate hovering around fifty percent. “I would try to reach them,” he said referring to the fourteen kids under his charge. “By the end of the year, all of the kids in that class bumped their reading levels up to grade level,” he noted of the positive result he had been a party to. Addressing a new group of City Year members, he ended on a note of uplift, emphasizing the difference that they could make, just as he did when he was in their shoes.