Podcast: Shirley Sagawa, volunteerism visionary


Shirley Sagawa, left, spoke with Amy Potthast, right.

Want to hear insight from the “founding mother of the modern service movement”? You’re in luck: our newest podcast is up now!

For National Volunteer Week, Amy Potthast interviewed Shirley Sagawa, author of The American Way to Change: How National Service and Volunteers and Transforming America. During the first Clinton administration, Shirley drafted the legislation that created AmeriCorps and the Corporation for National Service.

In his 1995 book, How a Bill Becomes a Law, Steve Waldman compared national service—full-time stipended volunteering like AmeriCorps and VISTA—to a Swiss Army Knife, “performing numerous useful functions in one affordable package.” In today’s show, Shirley revisits the Swiss Army Knife analogy with some timely new insights that she also shares in her book.

Click here to learn more and listen to the podcast.

Kudos to our host, Amy Potthast, and to our intern Tim Johnson for his help with podcast production!

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AmeriCorps is getting things done – but for how long?

Amy Potthast served as Idealist’s Director of Service and Graduate Education Programs until 2011. Read more of her work at amypotthast.com.

As of today, it sounds like legislation that allows the U.S. federal government to fund all programs at 2010 levels will expire in a couple of weeks.


In order to continue funding programs like AmeriCorps and HeadStart, Congress must come together to pass a new budget. Soon the Senate will look to pass a budget, which must be reconciled with the one that the House of Representatives passed Feb. 18th—H.R. 1—which cut $100 billion from President Obama’s proposed budget, and effectively eliminated funding for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) among other programs.

CNCS, one target of defunding in H.R. 1, is an independent federal agency that oversees several national service programs that allow people over 18 to serve part- or full-time in their local communities.

AmeriCorps, AmeriCorps VISTA, AmeriCorps NCCC, and Senior Corps members and Foster Grandparents roll up their sleeves every day to:

  • tutor and read with our children,
  • create healthy schools and build affordable housing in our neighborhoods,
  • take care of our forests and rivers,
  • help us access health care when we find ourselves under-insured,
  • assist recent immigrants on the path to U.S. citizenship,
  • help returning Veterans transition to new careers,
  • establish volunteer programs that recruit even more people to help out in local communities,
  • and build the capacity of our organizations that are working to end poverty.

Tens of thousands of people participate in national service programs every year, earning an education award and in some cases a very modest stipend.

The point of the stipend isn’t so much to offer service corps members a wage; national service is different from employment. The point is that in most cases, full-time corps members can support themselves on their stipend. This frees up their time to devote to their communities, and keeps them from competing against unemployed people for scarce jobs.


Americorps Members, via the Grace Hill St. Louis Flickr feed

National service programs are a network of partnerships between the government and nonprofits, schools, and agencies which receive—and match—funds that put corps members to work.

Because of the partnership model, national service programs are cost effective; offer host organizations valuable, focused, energetic staffing power to start new projects and serve clients at an affordable cost; and create opportunities for people to serve in critical-needs areas in their communities.

Actions to save service

In an effort to rally support for and defend funding for national service, several pro-service organizations have formed a new coalition called Save Service. Last week Save Service, AmeriCorps Alums, and other groups organized thousands of people to participate in District Day visits. People across the country showed up in 441 local House and Senate offices to share stories of the impact of national service programs with 295 Representatives and 83 Senators (and/or their staff). Save Service is offering web tools to help service fans talk with their leaders about the importance of national service and social innovation to their communities. And news media is covering national service like it’s 2008.

Rumor has it that AmeriCorps Week will be moved a week later this year (to May 14-21). As it happens, that is a district work week for Representatives, so as people across the country are celebrating AmeriCorps they can reach out to their Representatives and invite them to see first-hand member impact.

To be fair

We are in debt nationally. Yesterday my colleague Put Barber wrote about the need to make painful changes in order to create a financially sustainable future. We need to make sacrifices.

But surely we can do that without abolishing a valuable, cost-effective, successful, and popular program that involves thousands of communities across the United States and tens of thousands of citizens.

What do you think? Are you speaking up on behalf of service programs?

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Headlines: The budget; Girl Scout cookies; meditation in prison

A not-comprehensive roundup of some things that caught my eye.


By Cameron Brenchley (Flickr)

Proposed 2012 U.S. Budget

How it might change:

I think I need a Thin Mint.

  • Inside the Girl Scouts’ New Cookie Strategy (The Atlantic, Feb. 4): “Since 1917, we’ve had a laser focus on goal-setting, decision-making, money-making, business ethics,” Pesich said. “I’ve heard people reflect as adults that Girl Scouts was their first foray into business.”

Inhale. Exhale.

Send us a headline: In the last 72 hours, did you read something that moved you to action or gave you hope? Leave a comment below or tweet it to us @idealist.

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Book Review: Shirley Sagawa on National Service and Volunteers

Image from the book's website

Shirley Sagawa has been a source of creative energy for the growing national service movement in the United States for 20 years — from serving on Senator Ted Kennedy’s staff when the first tentative steps towards AmeriCorps were accepted by President George H. W. Bush, to cheering on the day President Barack Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act in Washington, DC last spring.

Her recent book, The American Way to Change: How National Service and Volunteers are Transforming America, builds on this experience to document the reasons for the success of this idea. It offers accounts of the positive impacts service has had on participants. It shows the ways the rapid growth in their numbers has made possible both expansion of needed services and brave experiments with new ways to address enduring challenges facing individuals and communities. And it talks about a future in which the engagement of active citizens could—and, if she has anything to say about it, will—“solve the seemingly intractable problems holding back this country from achieving its full potential.”

I had a chance to catch a small glimpse of all this a few days ago when I represented Idealist.org at a job fair for participants hosted by the Northwest Community Programs of the Student Conservation Association. The energetic high school juniors and seniors were sharing stories about their work on trails and beaches and environmental awareness fairs while looking forward to college, summer jobs and continued connections to projects and organizations like the ones they had met during their service. Sagawa’s book spans the nation and the possibilities with statistics and stories that show, over and over again, the positive effects of these programs on participants and communities of every sort.

(Not everyone is convinced of the potential of national service, of course. For a strong contrary view, see this recent column on Blue Avocado.)

Sagawa ends her book with a chapter on what’s needed now. Her recommendations “focus largely on the ‘demand’ and ‘systems’ parts of the service equation. If they are done right,” she says,” the supply of volunteers will be there.” “Demand” refers to the ways organizations and communities plan their work so volunteers can made real contributions. “Systems” points to the channels of communication and exploration that bring volunteers and tasks together in productive ways. Creativity in both will indeed be needed alongside the anticipated expansion in the numbers of participants. For national and community service advocates like Shirley Sagawa, the need for creative energy isn’t over yet.

(You can order The American Way to Change from Amazon.com; a royalty will be paid that helps support Idealist.org.)

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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