How Cities Address Tough Challenges Through the Power of Service

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This is the first article in a multi-part series from the National League of Cities (NLC), the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) and Cities of Service on the national and community service movement and its impact on cities and towns nationwide.

By Kathryn Rotondo (cityyear), via Wikimedia Commons

“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the U.S., we like to bemoan the civic disengagement we see all around us: the people who don’t vote, volunteer, or take an avid interest in current events. And by we, I really mean me, as I wrote a blog post on this topic less than a month ago. But like most things, the state of Americans’ engagement in the community is truly a matter of perspective.

You can fret over the just under 2/3 of Minnesotans who don’t volunteer, or you can rejoice over the 37.7% of Minnesotans who choose to devote a portion (or more) of their free time to serving others. Whereas last month I chose to focus on engaging those who have not been active in traditional forms of civic participation, today I want to celebrate that latter group, the people of all ages, regions, and walks of life who have chosen to serve their communities.

As NLC’s members know, local communities are stepping up to the plate to make tangible improvements in people’s lives. In many ways, the national service movement has stemmed from a similar place. People, including many young people, have an intense desire to take matters into our own hands, to put our boots on the ground in our own cities and towns in order to address everything from climate change to the high school dropout crisis.

This passion for problem-solving is seen everywhere from the church that holds a food bank for community members in need, to the local businesswoman who clears her calendar every week to make time to read with children at the neighborhood elementary school. And, increasingly, it is being seen in the form of organized volunteering through both federal programs including Senior Corps and AmeriCorps, and local programs such as mayoral offices of civic engagement or service.

By Liz Roll (This image is from the FEMA Photo Library.), via Wikimedia Commons

This more coordinated approach to volunteerism has given rise to “impact volunteering” – the idea that regular citizens are capable of making measurable differences in our communities in response to focused goals. It more fully incorporates volunteers into the operations of cities and towns, making them not just individual actors, but a part of a concrete vision for community improvement.

By including volunteers in an overall strategy, impact volunteering acknowledges their power, recognizing the vital, but often underappreciated role they play. It also allows city leaders to determine which needs are most acute in their communities, and gives cities a low-cost, high-impact tool to address those needs.

National service is another vital resource that city leaders are increasingly using to address critical challenges in a focused, strategic way.  More than 400,000 AmeriCorps and Senior Corps members serve at 60,000 locations in 8,500 cities across the country, tackling pressing challenges including tutoring and mentoring underserved youth, removing blight and increasing public safety, and helping communities recover from natural disasters. AmeriCorps members multiply their impact by recruiting and managing other community volunteers – more than four million last year alone.

In Baltimore, Md., the significant number of individuals suffering from substance addictions was identified as a critical issue facing the community by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Recognizing the key role that volunteers can play, and with support from Cities of Service, the mayor launched the “Recovery Corps initiative,” in which 100 volunteers, themselves recovering from addictions, are placed in recovery centers in order to help guide others through sustained sobriety.

In existence only since 2011, the Recovery Corps volunteers have already worked with 603 individuals to help them “enter, stay in, complete, and/or manage recovery after treatment,” in addition to having “provided support services or linked individuals to support services in 1180 instances.” Despite being a low-cost, volunteer-based program, the Recovery Corps is having a measurable impact in the city of Baltimore.

By vastateparksstaff, via Wikimedia Commons

In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter has worked to strategically engage citizens in addressing local challenges, particularly in the areas of education, food security, community revitalization, and youth engagement.  Mayor Nutter has made extensive use of AmeriCorps VISTA and other AmeriCorps resources to increase citizen engagement and volunteer impact.

In 2013, the City of Philadelphia launched PowerCorpsPHL, a workforce development initiative for Philadelphia’s young adults that uses AmeriCorps as a vehicle for job training and skills development.  While serving as AmeriCorps members, participants support Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and the Philadelphia Water Department in planting trees, revitalizing public land and preserving the City’s watersheds.

Given the impending retirement of the Baby Boomers and the emergence of the Millennials, there has never been a better time for cities to embrace community and national service. These two populations, not to mention those in between, are an incredibly rich resource for our communities; by making strategic decisions now, cities will be able to harness the service movement like never before, leading to truly transformative change in our nation.

Over the next few months, CitiesSpeak will feature blog posts from NLC, Cities of Service, the Corporation for National and Community Service and city leaders as we showcase the power of service and the concrete steps that can be taken in order to ensure that your community benefits from this movement.

Coleman PictureAbout the author: Molly Coleman is an intern with the National League of Cities University and an AmeriCorps alum who served with City Year New York from 2010 – 2011.