221 pages. $29.95 hardcover.
Few could be more qualified than Shirley Sagawa, who has been called “the founding mother of the modern service movement,” to propose this fresh vision that places citizen involvement at the heart of healing America’s inequities. As a college intern for Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 1981, when President Ronald Reagan recast government social programs as public/private ventures, she encountered the question that drives this book: “Can volunteers solve important problems facing our country?”
As a young lawyer on the Senate staff, Sagawa worked on the bill that became the National and Community Service Act of 1990. For President Bill Clinton, she helped to draft the legislation that created AmeriCorps, then became the managing director of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). For President Barack Obama, who Sagawa says demonstrates “a new way to think about service as something that everyone should do throughout their lives,” she headed the CNCS transition team. She continues to consult with the Obama administration, Congress and nonprofits on volunteering and national service policy.
Sagawa has high hopes for the 2009 Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which over 10 years aims to increase AmeriCorps from 75,000 slots to 250,000. The law’s new corps on education, health, energy, economic opportunity and veterans; its focus on life transitions; and its support for social innovation and stronger nonprofits could “leverage the true potential of national service and volunteering,” she writes.
We’ve been leaving service “out of the public problem-solving toolbox,” Sagawa says in her introduction. For policymakers, program directors, nonprofit leaders and “volunteers themselves,” her book spells out how to “support large-scale efforts to use service to address our national priorities,” from reducing energy consumption to handling disasters.
One of Sagawa’s core convictions is that “service ought to be a conscious way we shape the lives of Americans from youth through adulthood.” Her opening chapter demonstrates how service transforms each stage of life. For young people, volunteering – from school service-learning to outside efforts – can become a motivating interest that reduces disengagement and risky behavior. Volunteer efforts enhance life transitions all the way to retirement and through personal crises, and Sagawa offers examples of real people such as Ken, whose Red Cross work in New York City after 9/11 helped him cope with his mother’s death in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
The path “from volunteer to civic activist is well-traveled,” she writes. In groups of nonprofit leaders, half the audience typically responds to her request for a show of hands about who is an alumnus of AmeriCorps, VISTA or the Peace Corps. She cites three attributes of service experiences that lead to further civic engagement: exposure to real problems such as poverty, developing the capacity to make a difference, and connections to civic role models.
Beyond traditional volunteer roles of serving on boards, doing administrative tasks or fundraising, Sagawa examines six types of service that tackle “tough problems”:
• Activities that require many hands, from planting trees to preparing taxes.
• Pro bono help involving costly skills, like legal work.
• Building social capital with access to information, such as how to apply to college.
• Extra caring through mentoring or companionship.
• Community knowledge, such as translating or coaching.
• Community ownership through efforts such as building playgrounds.
Outstanding projects appear in four chapters on education; health and well-being; poverty and disasters; and the environment. For all four arenas, Sagawa summarizes the “potential for transformation” if social innovators test out-of-the-box ideas as volunteers.
The book closes with a list of “high-impact service programs,” many of which are breeding grounds for young leaders. Those who work with youth can help make these visions come to pass. (800) 956-7739, http://www.josseybass.com.