Volunteering Then and Now: Civic Innovation and Public Policy for Democracy

I began my own civic career in the early 1960s at a Catholic high school in New York City. Each week our Legion of Mary group, under the guidance of Brother Gabriel, met to discuss service and faith, and every Sunday for several years I went to Welfare Island (since renamed Roosevelt Island) to take impoverished people in long-term care at Goldwater Memorial Hospital to mass. I visited with them, asked how they had been feeling, and shared stories of their lives. They wanted to know how we were doing in school and in our extracurricular activities.

My regular buddy on those Sundays was Mr. Clarence Chambers, who was confined to a rickety old wooden wheelchair and rarely had family visitors. Every Sunday when I walked through the swinging doors of the bleak long hallway, Mr. Chambers welcomed me as a son. He always wanted to know how my track meets had gone, and he was especially pleased when, in the spring of my sophomore year, I brought him my gold medal from the Penn Relays and asked him to keep it for me. Every now and then I have a twinge of regret about not having that medal to show my own son. But it was a small sacrifice for a volunteer to make. And Mr. Chambers gave me much more than I could ever have given him.

Hampton, Virginia, 2002: Youth Civic Engagement

Today, some four decades later, I sit in my home office wearing a T-shirt, emblazoned “Volunteer Superstar,” that was given to me earlier this year by Alicia Tundidor, a 10th-grade African-American “youth commissioner” from Hampton, Virginia. She made the gift during a city council meeting that was packed to overflowing with young people to proclaim Youth Service Day and recognize the city’s efforts to build what she described as “a youth civic engagement system.”

For the past 10 years, Hampton, a city of 146,000 with a modest economic base and a population roughly split between black and white, has been building this system. Many of the young people undoubtedly have motives much like mine when I was a volunteer at their age. But what is going on in Hampton is considerably more sophisticated than anything I knew as a young person, even considering the student government and mock political conventions in which I was also involved. Civic engagement of young people has become a core value of the local political scene in Hampton, including its administrative, educational, and service systems.

Terry O’Neill, Hampton’s director of planning, sees the engagement of young people as an essential component in reinventing government. He has two paid high school “youth planners” on staff for 15 hours a week each and says he could use “four times that number if we had the resources.” He and his staff provide mentoring and technical assistance to the youth planners, who work with young people citywide to develop youth-friendly space and transportation for the city’s comprehensive plan. Laurine Press, director of parks and recreation, engages youth, asking them to envision the kinds of recreation they will want not just now but when they have young families of their own. Shellae Blackwell draws young people into the work of the Neighborhood Commission to work with adults on community improvement. Dr. Allen Davis and Johnny Pauls, superintendent of schools and director of secondary education, respectively, convene student representatives of the Superintendent’s Advisory Group to discuss issues like curricular requirements and state standards. Students in principals’ advisory groups meet regularly in each of the city’s four public high schools. Hampton has “youth community policing” in schools and neighborhoods. And every month Hampton’s 22 youth commissioners convene in open session in the city council chambers, sitting in the raised seats of the city councilors.

System Change, Culture Change

Assistant city manager Mike Monteith recalls that Hampton set out not just to have more youth “programs” but to “create a learning community” among a broad range of professionals and stakeholder groups. The goal was to build a system that progressively expanded leadership opportunities for sustained impact and began to treat youth “as assets, not deficits.”

Once Hampton decided to invest in youth development, it established a city office, the Coalition for Youth, to be a catalyst for change. A multiyear federal “community partnership grant from the Department of Health and Human Services provided early critical support to enable the city to do the planning that brought so many stakeholders on board.

Early on, Hampton’s leading nonprofit youth services agency, Alternatives, Inc., had to reinvent itself from a substance abuse agency to one that developed youth leadership. Hampton’s young people objected to its deficits approach. They did not want to be “fixed” by professionals or even “prevented” from needing to be fixed. They wanted opportunities to contribute in real and visible ways to the community, and they wanted the respect that comes with doing public work of genuine value.

Over the years, the key adult catalysts of change at both the Coalition for Youth and Alternatives, Inc., especially Cindy Carlson and Richard Goll, have approached their work as long-term organizing, mentoring, and relationship building. They have identified adult and youth leaders and worked to build lasting collaboration around a vision of engaged youth.

Volunteer Superstars? Yes! But the real story in Hampton is one of organizing for civic democracy, of a formal role for youth in governance, of transforming organizational and professional norms to support the work of citizens. It is a story of public policy that can support sustained civic innovation.

Hampton’s youth civic engagement movement has channeled individual volunteerism—volunteerism that would otherwise be big-hearted, yet episodic and divorced from power—into sustained institutional work. Unlike my own volunteer experience, it has changed the way that citizens in all their roles—volunteers, social service and education professionals, public officials, stakeholder groups—do the work of the public. This is not volunteerism but civic democracy woven throughout core institutional systems and designed to tackle the complex problems of the 21st century.

Civic Innovation

Over the past eight years, Lewis Friedland and I, with our research teams at Brandeis University and the University of Wisconsin, have interviewed more than 700 civic innovators like those in Hampton—youth and adults, community activists and heads of major networks, local officials and federal agency staff.

Some have reinvented congregation-based community organizing in national networks like the Industrial Areas Foundation so that low-income communities can share in power and help build sustainable partnerships for job training, housing development, and school reform.

Others have reinvigorated urban democracy in cities like Portland, Oregon, where neighborhood and civic associations have become more inclusive and more capable of sustained problem solving, and where their work is complemented by community policing, neighborhood district attorneys, environmental and community planning, watershed associations, greenspace partnerships, and a Portland State University-wide curriculum devoted to generating community leadership.

“Civic environmentalists” have developed watershed, forest, and estuary restoration strategies as partnerships among community and environmental groups, farmers and ranchers, and government officials. “Healthy community” innovators have engaged community organizations, congregations, parish nurses associations, hospitals, public health agencies, and some managed care systems to develop community-based health improvement strategies. More and more universities have begun to rethink their mission and practices in terms of civic engagement. As Robert Bruininks, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Minnesota, put it, these universities are making big changes in how undergraduates learn, how faculty are rewarded, how they partner with communities-even how researchers map the human genome and then become responsible for leading discussion of the ethical and public policy implications of their work.

Public Policy for Democracy

At all levels of the federal system, public policy can support such civic innovation. There are many models of policy design on which to build.

In environmental policy, for instance, the federal Chesapeake Bay Program has helped build the capacity of local partnerships among watershed associations, school-based water quality monitoring groups, fishing and boating clubs, farm and business groups. It has also helped local governments catalyze civic partnerships for ecosystem restoration. The Environmental Education Act of 1990 and Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Education have not only supported service learning in schools and communities, but also helped build capacity among national and state environmental education associations to support community action. The Office of Environmental Justice and the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics have each helped support innovative civic strategies. The Estuary Restoration Act of 2000, designed in part by a national coalition of 11 restoration groups, has spurred further community-based restoration partnerships. States like Massachusetts, California, and Washington have made collaborative watershed restoration a centerpiece of environmental protection. And more and more local governments are working in “sustainable communities” partnerships.

One could catalogue and analyze a whole range of program and policy designs that build youth civic capacity for public problem solving. The Office of University Partnerships at the Department of Housing and Urban Development has helped support universities working with local groups on a wide array of community development issues. HUD’s YouthBuild supports leadership development as part of its job training and education programs for young adults from inner-city neighborhoods. The Corporation for National and Community Service supports service learning, local capacity building, and volunteering in numerous local and national projects. The Department of Agriculture supported the 4-H National Conversation on Youth Development for the 21st Century that engaged some 50,000 people this past year in helping reorient the 4-H movement around a vision of “empowering youth as equal partners.” The Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has supported innovative teen courts where youth assume responsible roles in adjudication. Massachusetts offers peer leadership programs for young people in health promotion. San Francisco now includes a youth commission as part of its charter. New York City has Beacon centers in every school district offering community service, problem solving, and leadership development opportunities.

Needed:Strong Political Leadership at the Top

Over the past decade we have reached the point where we, as a nation, can set the goal of reinventing government to catalyze robust civic problem solving across the land. Doing so will take political leadership at the highest levels.

The Clinton administration, despite its support for many of these programs and its 1995 State of the Union theme of “reinventing citizenship,” was unable to focus its efforts or capture the public imagination. A proposal for a White House office that would systematically catalyze civic initiatives across federal agencies was dropped in 1994. The Gore campaign of 2000 ignored these themes almost entirely, leaving the field of community and citizenship to Ralph Nader’s anticorporate populism on the left and George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism on the right.

In the wake of September 11, President Bush has raised the ideal of active citizenship to a new level of public discourse. Yet his approach has major shortcomings. First, the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, designed narrowly from the start, has never had the capacity to support community-based and civic problem-solving strategies across the full range of federal agencies and programmatic areas. The work of the Corporation for National and Community Service is essential, but its scope is also limited. Second, the frame of volunteerism and service is simply not muscular enough to do the heavy lifting required for reinvigorating civic democracy and institutional change. And, third, public support for innovative civic strategies, which often require new ways of thinking about regulation and service delivery, will weaken if accompanied by one-sided corporate versions of deregulation or social service cutbacks.

Looking Ahead

The service I did as a volunteer was formative in my teenage years, and it is a hopeful sign that service is on the rise among today’s youth. Yet volunteerism, service, and compassion, however laudable, too easily slide into individual good works, ignore core institutional practices, sidestep questions of power, and often reinforce paternalism and dependency.

To reinvent democracy, we will need to go beyond volunteerism to build civic engagement. We can—and must—revitalize democratic problem solving to draw in poor, working class, and minority communities that have drifted away, or have been driven away, from civic and political participation in recent decades. They are not populations to be “served” by big-hearted volunteers. Nor are they simply constituencies to be mobilized for more “services.” They are communities to be fully engaged in problem solving and public work in partnership with the full spectrum of our government, business, and civic institutions.